Will “gluten free” be fine in ’09?

It’s hard to believe it’s 2009 and we are still waiting for the gluten-free label to have real meaning. After all, the heralded Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act said the label had to be defined by August, 2008.

That gave the Food and Drug Administration four years after the allergen labeling law was passed to get its act together on the gluten-free label. At first, at Gluten-Free Living, we fully expected some kind of definition to be finalized by the August deadline. But as it got closer, we started to realize that the FDA was going to let the date go by without any action.

Personally, I don’t really understand how the agency can ignore a law passed by Congress and signed by the president, but as a reporter I know it happens.

The official reason for the delay is that the FDA is waiting for a report on all the studies that look into a safe cut-off level for gluten in gluten-free food.

Wait a minute, you might be thinking! How can there be any gluten in gluten-free food? But the truth of the matter is there is likely to be a tiny amount of gluten even in gluten-free food because of cross-contamination. For example, gluten-free flour can have traces of wheat flour in it because of the way grains are grown, transported and milled. It’s just a farming fact of life.

Researches have tried to measure when these traces trigger damage to the villi of those who have celiac disease. The FDA is looking at studies from this kind of research to see if a proposed level of 20 parts per million — a very small amount — is the safest cut off.

There’s nothing wrong with that. Nobody wants a label that allows an unsafe level. I’m just not sure why the FDA waited so long to look at the studies.

Another complication is that FDA recommended 20 ppms because there was no reliable test for any smaller amount that could be used for all kinds of gluten-free food. So much time has gone by, even that might have changed.

The FDA isn’t a real talkative agency. It’s very hard to get information from them. And now that the agency is under fire for not doing basic things like going after food companies that list flour instead of wheat flour on a label — a violation of the allergen labeling law — it’s unlikely they will open up about what’s going on with the gluten-free definition.

Some have expressed hope that the new presidential administration, with a newly appointed head of the FDA, will change things.

That’s my biggest hope for 2009. No matter what else happens in the changing gluten-free world, I hope that we will finally get the gluten-free label we all need. Certainly it will cause some upheaval for gluten-free companies that will have to test their products to prove they can meet the cut off. Surely we have right to be dubious about how the FDA will ever enforce the law behind the label. But without it, “gluten free” means many different things and that’s not good for those seeking a healthy gluten-free life.


  • tmb

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    Take care!