Rebuilding gluten-free confidence

The recent Chicago Tribune stories about gluten in products labeled “gluten free” probably left you wondering how safe the food in your pantry really is.

It was unnerving to read in one story that Wellshire Farms chicken bites, and chicken and beef corn dogs that were labeled “gluten free” were independently tested and found to contain anywhere from 200 to 2,200 parts per million of gluten.

“How could that be?” you probably asked yourself while either sighing with relief that you had never bought the products or searching through the freezer to chuck any that you had purchased.

But the real question is how wide spread the problem of mislabeled gluten-free food really is? And the unnerving answer is that no one knows.

The Tribune, in its broader stories about problems with allergen labeling, reported mislabeling of gluten from only one company. (There was mention of the potential for gluten in Whole Foods corn tortillas, but independent tests found no gluten in them). What would we find if we tested a number of products that are labeled “gluten free?”

There are many specialty gluten-free food makers who take steps to make sure their products are safe. They make them in manufacturing plants where no gluten-containing products are made. They test ingredients and then they test the final food. Many gluten-free companies were started by individuals who have celiac disease or gluten intolerance who are aware of the dangers of cross-contamination and all the precautions that are needed.

But some companies who don’t follow such strict practices. Some are small and can’t afford to. Others are large and don’t have the commitment to the gluten-free customer.

And there are still no regulations that establish one set of rules that every company has to follow before it can put a gluten-free label on a package.

That’s why final approval of the proposed definition of “gluten free” is so important and why it’s so frustrating that the Food and Drug Administration has let the deadline required in the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act go by without any action.

The Tribune stories faulted the FDA (and the US Department of Agriculture) for not doing a very good job enforcing the labeling laws that already exist. So you do have to wonder how the beleaguered agency will ever be able to police gluten-free companies adequately once a standard for gluten-free food is set.

But finalization of the standard is a necessary first step before those who have celiac disease can have real confidence in the gluten-free label.

It doesn’t seem there is anything gluten-free consumers can do to get the FDA moving on the definition. The agency says it is still studying the safety of allowing only foods with less than 20 ppm of gluten to use the gluten-free label.

Maybe bad publicity from the Tribune articles will kick start the FDA because it’s pretty clear that misleading consumers with a “gluten free” label on corn dogs that contain up to 100 times the proposed standard is not safe.