Last week a North Carolina man was found guilty of selling bakery products labeled as homemade and gluten-free that were actually wheat products he bought from stores including Costco and Sam’s Club. Paul Seelig was charged with and found guilty of “obtaining property by false pretenses.” The court couldn’t press charges on him for mislabeling, however, because currently no federal gluten-free labeling standard exists; consumers simply have to hope manufacturers are truthfully labeling products as gluten-free.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was tasked seven years ago with issuing a gluten-free labeling standard but the ruling has yet to come. To draw attention to FDA’s inaction, a growing number of gluten-free advocates are sponsoring the first Gluten Free Food Labeling Summit in Washington, D.C. The May 4 event will feature speeches and members of the gluten-free community delivering gluten-free cake to lawmakers working to get attention to the issue.
FDA gluten-free label regs long overdue for many
Seven years ago, the FDA created the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act. The law requires the top eight food allergens be clearly indicated on food packages. For example, milk can’t be labeled as casein; wheat can’t be called triticale or farro. But gluten-containing rye and barley were not among the eight, so consumers often don’t know if a product contains gluten. But a component of FALCPA tasked the FDA with creating gluten-free labeling standards that would cover this grey area. But seven years later the FDA has still not issued those standards.
“It’s taken [FDA] seven years and counting to publish a law,” says Andrea Levario, executive director of the American Celiac Disease Alliance. In 2007, the FDA published a proposed definition of gluten free and issued a 30-day public comment period, but there were no announcements after that, says Levario. “Our organization has written to the FDA twice and never had a response,” she says. In the past month ACDA sent the FDA 1,600 letters from consumers asking where the regulations are.
According to a release from the FDA last month, the agency's safety assessment on gluten exposure in individuals with celiac disease has been a lengthy process and that “efforts are now underway to publish a Federal Register notice to reopen the comment period on the proposed rule in order to share the safety assessment and solicit public comments on it and its potential use in defining the term “gluten-free” in the final rule.”
What are safe gluten levels?
The FDA’s 2007 definition for gluten free was 20 parts per million, a standard that research shows is safe for those with celiac, Levario says. “If new research shows that it needs to be lower, this number will have to be revisited,” she says.
A growing number of manufacturers are taking it upon themselves to use an independent certifying agency for their gluten-free products. The most common certification agency is Gluten Free Certification Organization which certifies to 10 parts per million.
Manufacturer and retailer responsibility
Members of the gluten-free community would like to see more retailers and manufacturers take gluten free more seriously. Levario lauds Whole Foods' initiative to only put certified gluten-free products into its gluten-free section. “These sorts of standards help retailers because they can recommend [gluten-free] products with confidence; they know they have been tested with some rigor,” she says.
Matt Cox, Director of Marketing for Bob’s Red Mill, believes a standard will reduce consumer and retailer confusion. “The industry has gone crazy putting "gluten free" on everything,” he says. “I was recently in a store where the retailer had a list of hundreds of gluten-free products and things like water were on it. This just makes it more confusing for consumers,” he says.
“Retailers cannot be reckless or negligent when stocking gluten-free products. Many consumers are new to the process and buying things that say "gluten free" in good faith,” says Jules Shepard, author, advocate and owner of Jules Gluten Free.
Shepard says a standard will help retailers. “We need a line in the sand,” she says. “[A standard] will say to companies that want a share of the gluten-free wealth that it takes commitment--either don’t put it on your package or certify.”
The bottom line: This is a health safety issue
An FDA standard is desperately needed for several reasons, the first being the consumer. As Bob’s Red Mill’s Cox points out, it’s a real safety and health issue for consumers exposed to gluten. “It can make life living hell for people with celiac and lead to things like cancer.” And as diagnostics get better, the number of people with celiac will grow quickly, and then so will the product offerings and confusion.
A standard can only help the natural products industry. Most manufacturers are indeed doing due diligence when it comes to gluten testing. A standard will weed out the profiteers who jeopardize the reputation of all gluten-free manufacturers and it will serve as an indispensable tool for retailers to build robust and reliable gluten-free sections.
To bring attention to the one in 133 Americans with celiac disease and to call for a labeling standard, members of the gluten-free community are holding the inaugural 1in133 event in Washington.
1in133 will take place at the Embassy Suites Convention Center on May 4 and culminates with a VIP reception for federal lawmakers, concerned members and friends of the gluten-free community and gluten-free food manufacturers.In addition to speakers and petition signing, the event will also feature the world’s largest gluten-free cake.
To find out more about the event and to sign a petition urging the FDA to pass gluten-free labeling laws, visit 1in133.org.