Will You Trust ‘Gluten-Free’ Labeling Allowed by the FDA?

by Melissa Diane Smith

(Opinion) – After four years of inactivity on the matter, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reopened a public comment period for its proposal about labeling foods as “gluten-free” and said it aims to publish a final rule and start allowing official gluten-free labeling in the third quarter of 2012. Members of the gluten-free community around the country are excited about this development with many thinking gluten-free labeling approved and monitored by the FDA will automatically protect them from unwanted exposure to gluten. But will it?

In the proposal, foods that bear the “gluten-free” claim cannot contain 20 parts per million (ppm) or more gluten. According to an FDA press release, available methods for gluten detection “could not reliably detect the amount of gluten in a food when the level was less than 20 ppm.” But is this really true? I think not. The Gluten-Free Certification Organization tests products and only allows them to have 10 ppm or less to be gluten-free certified. Quality Assurance International as well only allows 10 ppm. And products that receive the Celiac Sprue Association (CSA) Recognition Seal must test below 5 ppm.

Social media sites, such as the Facebook page for my local celiac group, are getting comments from people with celiac disease who say they react to levels of gluten below 20 ppm. So, this new label, if enacted, would not help those people choose foods that would help them experience good health. Isn’t that the point of the label in the first place? Maybe not…

“Before finalizing our gluten-free definition, we want up-to-date input from affected consumers, the food industry, and others to help assure that the label strikes the right balance,” said Michael Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods. “We must take into account the need to protect individuals with celiac disease from adverse health consequences while ensuring that food manufacturers can meet the needs of consumers by producing a wide variety of gluten-free foods.”

What exactly is the “right balance” between consumers and the food industry in the eyes of the FDA? Why not protect more people with celiac disease and gluten intolerance from adverse reactions? At one point in a conference call about the labeling on August 2, Taylor said the FDA wants somewhere between no effect from the food to a slightly adverse reaction.

As Rodney Fife, Ogden Gluten-Free Foods Examiner, spelled out in a recent article:

Why would the FDA allow companies to label a product Gluten Free with 20 ppm? They have to know this move will cause individuals to become sick.

I have a couple of questions. First of all is there pressure from food manufacturers to have a higher limit? We know the food industry spends millions of dollars to lobby Washington. Is it not the job of the FDA to ensure food safety? Why then would they endanger the health of thousands of Americans?

He goes on to say, “I will not risk the health of my Family to the FDA’s new requirement.”

That seems like a wise move. When the question of how violations of using the “gluten-free” claim would be dealt with, one of the officials on the conference call was rather vague, saying it could be anything from a warning letter to court action to a mandatory recall.

Here’s some questions to ask yourself:

  • Would the FDA find company violators of the “gluten-free” claim and handle them as (in)efficiently as it does violators of allergen-free claims? In 2008, I reported on a Chicago Tribune investigation that found:

An alarming number of products sold as allergen-free actually contain harmful amounts of allergens – and American children with food allergies end up suffering unnecessary reactions, including life-threatening reactions that send them to the hospital…. The Tribune investigation found that manufacturers can mislabel their product and some companies do little or no testing. In addition, government agencies rarely police products.

  • Would the FDA take as long and have as much trouble finding violators of the “gluten-free” claim as it does trying to determine which company’s products are responsible for E coli and salmonella outbreaks that routinely occur in our food system?
  • Would the FDA allow food manufacturers that use the “gluten-free” label to police themselves, just like the FDA allows agrichemical corporations that produce genetically modified foods to (not) police themselves?

(To help you make a few connections, Michael Taylor, current deputy commissioner for foods, was a former attorney for Monsanto, the largest biotech company, and later its vice president. He also was the FDA official in charge of creating the policy that said that genetically modified foods were not substantially different than conventionally grown foods, which led to genetically modified foods not being labeled in this country, according to the Institute for Responsible Technology.)

As one person new to the gluten-free scene wrote me: The FDA is saying “This food is Gluten-free, but it has a little bit of gluten in it.” That is like saying, this food is toxin-free but there is a little bit of toxins in it. Isn’t the FDA supposed to be a consumer protection agency?

Just as I mentioned in my 2008 “Peril in Allergen-Free Food Products” article, if this new gluten-free ruling comes to be, Let the Buyer Beware!

Selected References:

CSA Recognition Seal Program page. Celiac Sprue Association, CSACeliacs.org.

FDA Reopens Public Comment Period on Proposed Labeling Rule. CeliacCentral.org, 8/2/11.

Fife, Rodney. When You Thought the FDA Was Getting Its Act Together. Examiner.com, Salt Lake City, August 4, 2011.

GMO Health Risks brochure. The Campaign for Healthier Eating in America. Copyright Institute for Responsible Technology, 2009.

Smith, Melissa Diane. Peril in Allergen-Free Food Products, Chicago Tribune Special Report Finds. Against the Grain Nutrition News & Notes, November 24, 2008.

Melissa’s Comments:

If you have gluten intolerance and want to voice your complaints and suggestions about the FDA’s proposed ruling, you can do so at http://www.regulations.gov/#!home . It is a proposed rule and the docket number is FDA-2005-N-0404. I encourage individuals to write and share how they really feel about these proposed guidelines.

But whatever happens with the FDA’s ruling, remember this: The safest and healthiest foods are those that are naturally gluten free with no risk of cross-contamination from wheat and other grains – in other words, vegetables, fruits, nuts, fish, and meats, especially those that are grass-fed and organic. These foods are nutrient-rich. Eating them promotes health in many different ways that I have explained in my books, not the least of which is eating these foods is the easiest and most sure way to avoid gluten.

Given the FDA’s not very good history of “protecting” the American public, be aware of the risks that come with what the FDA proposes and choose foods carefully for safe eating that really promotes health. I’d gladly choose food products labeled with symbols from the Celiac Sprue Association, the Gluten-Free Certification Organization, or Quality Assurance International any day over foods labeled with whatever “gluten-free” symbol the FDA chooses.

For all of the reasons I’ve covered in this article – let’s face it: it’s a minefield for all of us choosing foods these days! – I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to be a savvy shopper, not blindly accept foods with the “gluten-free” claim, and choose the most health-promoting gluten-free convenience products available. If you need help doing that, check out my latest book, Gluten Free Throughout the Year, which was written exactly for that purpose.

Copyright © 2011 Melissa Diane Smith


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