The FDA's gluten-free labeling ruling goes into effect on August 5, 2014. That means that on or before August 5, any food product regulated by FDA and making a "gluten-free" claim on its package will have to adhere to FDA's standardized definition for gluten-free.
Last week we dug into nuances of the ruling, courtesy of Gluten Intolerance Group. This week, Delicious Living advisory board member Rachel Begun, RD, discusses a few more details about the ruling and what it means for you, food products, and restaurants.
Why was this standard needed?
Rachel Begun, RD: A lot of people don’t realize that prior to the ruling, the term “gluten free” on food packages was an arbitrary term. So what it meant for one food manufacturer was vastly different than for another. Some GF manufacturers who were very loyal to the community were taking the utmost precautions to prevent gluten contamination, and they were already meeting that less than 20ppm [level] or going even lower if they were using third-party certification. All of the third-party certification organizations test to at least 10ppm and there is one that even tests to 5ppm.
But then there are other manufacturers that weren’t necessarily taking the proper precautions. They may have been using all gluten-free ingredients, but they weren’t going above and beyond to make sure that there was no cross-contact with gluten. It made it really confusing and frustrating and even dangerous for people who have to eat gluten free. [People] were literally spending hours in the supermarket or on the phone with manufacturers trying to determine if the product was truly safe for them to eat.
[With the new standard,] gluten free now means one thing across the board. And now the consumer can feel pretty confident that when they see “gluten free” on a food package, it’s safe to eat. I think it definitely is a victory for the gluten free community.
[One caveat: This ruling only applies to FDA-regulated products; that does not include meat, fish, and poultry.] People should not walk into the supermarket and think that every food is covered under the ruling; it’s not.
Who is going to police the standard?
RB: That’s a really good question. Manufacturers are not required to test their products. So if they are making a voluntary gluten-free claim, they don’t have to test, but technically that means they have to be meeting that less than 20ppm standard. If FDA calls them out and says “we need proof that your products are actually meeting the less than 20ppm criteria,” then [the companies] have to provide some kind of credible information to back up that claim.
Will the FDA call out misbranded products? Or is it going to be consumer policed?
RB: I think the FDA is going to do what they can, but I think we all know that the FDA has only a certain amount of resources that they can dedicate to this. It’s not like they can police every single product out there. [However,] there is a process in place that consumers can submit a complaint to FDA if they feel that they ate a product that perhaps was not complying with the criteria. I’m not sure exactly what the process is, but the FDA will have that reporting process.
Do you think manufacturer liability is going to become an issue?
Rachel: The regulation could potentially put [companies] at liability because it is a voluntary claim, so you don’t have to label your products “gluten free.” If you are choosing to use that claim, then you’re basically saying that you’re taking the steps and the precautions that you need to. Nobody is forcing you to make that gluten free claim.
There is also the opportunity for other kinds of claims, so you might see products making the claim “low gluten” or “made without gluten-containing ingredients, but we can’t guarantee against cross-contact.” Some manufacturers may resort to other wording because they don’t feel that they need to cater to the person with celiac disease, but they may cater to the person who chooses to eat gluten free for other, nonmedical reasons.
Are other terms covered by this regulation?
RB: The ruling specifically states that terminology that is very similar to guten free, such as “no gluten,” “made without gluten,” and “free of gluten,” will also have to abide by the criteria. But again, you may see companies that do not necessarily want to go through the steps of ensuring that there is less than 20ppm, so they may choose to use different wording such as “low gluten” or “made without gluten, but can’t guarantee.”
How will this ruling affect restaurants?
RB: FDA requirements for GF claims apply only to packaged foods that are subject to FDA labeling regulations. However, the FDA stated the following in the preamble to its final ruling: “With respect to restaurants, FDA guidance suggests that any use of an FDA defined food labeling claim on restaurant menus should be consistent with the regulatory definitions.”
That means that while restaurants are not required to meet the less than 20ppm criteria if they label their menu items as gluten free, they are strongly encouraged to do so. I think we are going to start seeing restaurants taking greater caution with the wording on their menus. To date, we see many restaurants make outright gluten free claims and use the little “GF” next to their menu items, but I think now, we might start to see them using different terminology like “we do our best to make everything gluten free, but we can’t guarantee against cross-contamination.”
Even restaurants that may have gone through really rigorous training for their staff, those are the restaurants that are probably still more likely to use that precautionary wording just to make sure that patrons know that they truly can’t guarantee.
What it comes down to is really word of mouth. In the gluten-free community, we talk to one another. We share it on social media about a restaurant that is really good, or maybe one we didn’t have a good experience about. I think that word of mouth and information sharing is going to go a long way.