Friday, April 22, 2011

Taking the gluten-free cake

Gluten-Free Living has been covering news about proposed rules for using the gluten-free label on food for almost 10 years.

We've had at least one story on the subject in almost every issue we've published since Congress first started looking at changes to allergen labeling laws in 2001. I feel confident saying there is no other publication that has devoted as much space to this critical gluten-free topic.

We've had some exciting moments in the process -- finally announcing passage of the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act,  attending Food and Drug Administration hearings to help shape the proposed gluten-free definition mandated by the act and writing about the details of the gluten-free proposal when it came out.

But gluten-free labeling is a complex issue as anyone who starts to look into it will quickly find. And the task of trying to explain all the ins and outs of the label, as well as the detailed tests and studies involved, sometimes strained our writing and reporting skills.

And all the delays by the FDA have certainly strained our editorial patience. We have probably been rebuffed by FDA spokespeople more than any other media outlet on this topic.

But we have stuck with it, propelled by the belief that good labels empower gluten-free consumers. Since the gluten-free diet is the only the treatment if you have celiac disease or gluten intolerance, the ability to figure out what's in your food is the gear turning the wheels of your healthy gluten-free life.

So with this background you can imagine our excitement over the 1in133 event literally being baked up on May 4 in Washington, DC. The plan is to make the biggest gluten-free cake ever to draw attention to the FDA's delinquency in finalizing gluten-free rules.

Finally something that's fun for us to cover, easy to understand, with great photo opportunities to boot.

We love the creative juices flowing when Jules Shepard and John Forberger cooked up this public relations confection to get the attention of the FDA, consumers, food makers, members of Congress and anyone else who can't resist the spectacle of a 14-foot-tall gluten-free cake.

Shepard, owner of the company that makes Jules Gluten-Free All Purpose Flour, says a spectacle is exactly what she and Forberger, a gluten-free triathlete active on Twitter,  thought was needed to draw attention to the foundering gluten-free label. Right now the only US law that governs gluten-free labeling  is a general requirement that a label has to be truthful and not misleading.

"We thought we needed to do something," Shepard says. "We thought we could build a cake that would be a spectacle, but we wanted to do it with a purpose."

With the help of Lee Tobin, who launched Whole Foods Gluten-Free Bakehouse and chef Aaron Flores, Shepherd and Forberger plan to bake the cake, then assemble and frost it at the Embassy Suites Convention Center in Washington, DC. When it's all finished, it will be served to those who have come to hear a plea that the FDA get a precise definition for gluten free on the books.

The FDA came up with a proposed definition in 2008 that spells out what a food company would have to do before it could use a gluten-free label, including proving that the food has less than 20 parts per million of gluten. But the definition has been stuck in limbo ever since.

Meanwhile, work on the cake is already underway. Tobin has been baking about 100 full sheet cakes -- that's literally a ton of cake made with 180 pounds of Jules flour Shepard says -- at the bakehouse in North Carolina. The cakes will be frozen and shipped to Washington, where plans for a support system are being worked out. A scaffold of ply-wood tiers and PVC pipes will underpin the cake, which has to be perfectly level to stay up. Massive pastry bags will be used to ice the cake with 700 pounds of frosting, though fancy decorations will be kept to a minimum since there is not a lot of time to put the cake together. Work will begin at 11 a.m. and end at 4:30 p.m. so the cake can be served at a 5 p.m. reception.

The enormity of that challenge really hit Shepard when she saw an episode of Food Network's "Last Cake Standing" where bakers had to build a seven-foot cake in 12 hours. The gluten-free cake will be twice as high and has to be put together in about half the time.

"A lot of drama will surround the building of the cake," she says.

But the real drama behind the event is the need for better labeling for the ever-growing number of people who follow the gluten-free diet. The cake is the draw, but action on the gluten-free label is the point, Shepard says.

There has been some early success in that regard. The FDA contacted 1in133 organizers to say a representative will attend the event. Alessio Fasano, MD, director of the University of Maryland's Center for Celiac Research will speak. More than 2,500 people signed an online petition soon after the event was announced and more names are being added every day. In addition, at last count about 1,500 letters have been sent to the FDA and about 1,000 to the secretary of Health and Human Services.

Plans are being made to lobby members of Congress for improvements to allergen and gluten-free labeling during the day while the cake is being assembled. And funds are being raised to cover the cost of the event, which Shepard estimates will be about $10,000. Any additional money will be donated to the American Celiac Disease Alliance, an advocacy group. You can still donate, sign the petition or send a letter on the 1in133 website.

Gluten-Free Living and a number of other gluten-free businesses and individuals are actively supporting 1in133. We are hoping this event will really take the cake when it comes to improving gluten-free labeling.

Amy Ratner


GothamTomato said...

I'm glad Whole Foods is involved. Another great store to get involved would be Wegman's. Wegman's has THE BEST selection of gluten free products anywhere - and at the best prices. And they also label all their in-house foods and recipes with a 'G' if they are gluten free.


T.R. said...

So excited for two weeks from now!