August 2014 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a long-awaited “gluten-free” labeling law designed to protect those suffering from Celiac Disease, a serious allergy to the gluten proteins found in certain grains, like wheat, barley, and rye. There are a lot of questions around the new labeling standards, so I thought I’d take a crack at answering them for you.
Why the new law? Until recently “gluten-free” didn’t have a legal definition, which meant food manufacturers could label foods as such without regulation, and they weren’t held liable if their foods actually did contain gluten.
While scanning food packaging for ingredients that contain gluten can be helpful, even a trace amount of the stuff (transferred during growing, harvesting or processing—also known as cross-contamination) can make someone who suffers from Celiac Disease or gluten-intolerance very sick. Thus, the FDA had to set standards around what could and could not be considered gluten-free.
What are the new gluten-free standards? Now in the U.S.,foods labeled “gluten-free” (or “free of gluten, “no gluten”, and “without gluten”) must contain less than 20 parts-per-million (ppm) of gluten, including any gluten from cross-contamination. Currently, Canada and countries in Europe also define gluten-free foods as less than 20 ppm gluten.
Why doesn’t “gluten-free” mean zero gluten? The current methods used to measure the gluten content of foods are not yet able to reliably detect gluten at levels lower than 20 ppm. Thankfully, researchers in the field agree that this amount is safe for almost everyone with Celiac Disease or gluten intolerance.
Do food manufacturers have to test products they label “gluten-free”? This is where the law falls short. While it clearly states “gluten-free” foods must contain less than 20 ppm, the new law doesn’t actually require manufacturers to test them for gluten.
Which foods aresubject to the new rule? This legislation covers all FDA-regulated packaged foods, including nutrition supplements and foods imported from outside the U.S. However, the law doesn’t apply to alcoholic beverages, including malted beverages (i.e. beer), which are frequently brewed with grains that contain gluten.
When will this labeling law take effect? Foods labeled as gluten-free on or after August 5, 2014 must meet the rule’s requirements; however, it’s important to keep in mind that products labeled prior to this date may still appear on store shelves—depending on inventory, product shelf life, popularity, and other variables.
What if I think a product is mislabeled? Consumers can file complaints by calling the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition’s Adverse Event Reporting System (also known as CAERS) at 240-402-2405 or by emailing CAERS@cfsan.fda.gov. Alternatively, complaints can be made to a FDA Complaint Coordinator.
Do you pay attention to “gluten-free” labels? Share your thoughts in the comments below!