Comments on gluten-free labeling have been trickling in to the Food and Drug Administration, with new ones being made public nearly every day.
As of this morning, the agency has posted 90 comments on the regulations website. So far, those in favor of allowing less than 20 parts per million of gluten in gluten-free products are running evenly with those who want a stricter cut off. Not everyone who commented specifically addressed the 20 ppm standard, but of those who did, 14 say they support it. Meanwhile 13 pushed for a lower level with about half saying gluten-free should mean zero gluten.
At this point, while the numbers are interesting, they are rather meaningless. The FDA usually takes a while to get comments posted. There is still about a month to go before the comment period closes and the FDA will not begin to pay attention to comments until then.
So far, individuals have made the most comments with 64. Businesses have sent 10 comments, as have those who identify themselves as members of celiac support groups . There are also six comments from those who identify themselves as part of the medical community.
But the FDA has not yet posted any comments from those who used the labeling letter on the website of 1in133, the grass roots groups pushing for final approval of gluten-free labeling. There also aren't any comments from celiac disease experts or from the national celiac disease support groups.
That does not mean there is any problem. It just means they have not been posted yet.
We know these are all coming. The 1in 133 group's efforts are widely publicized and the group has been very successful in drumming up support. The National Foundation for Celiac Awareness has written to its members urging them to join the 1in133 letter writing campaign. You can sign the 1in133 letter here.
We have also seen letters from Alessio Fasano, MD, of the University of Maryland's Center for Celiac Research, and Stefano Guandalini, MD, of the Celiac Disease Center at the University of Chicago supporting 20 ppm. You can sign onto Fasano's letter here.
You can also send your own comments to the FDA here. Click on "submit a comment" and type FDA-2005-N-0404 into the search bar. On the next page that comes up, down about halfway down, click "submit a comment" next to the gluten-free labeling notation.
I have been covering labeling for Gluten-Free Living from the beginning, when the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act first directed the FDA to come up with rules for what can be labeled gluten free. So I have been through FDA public comment periods a few times already.
When the FDA first asked for public input in 2005 as it was working on the proposed definition, 500 individuals, companies and organizations responded. In 2007, after the proposal was released, the FDA again sought comments. At that time you could not read them online so I went to the FDA's cramped reading room, where letters and printed emails filled four heavy binders.
The comments came from people with celiac disease, gluten-free food companies, mainstream food makers, large grocery chains, celiac disease support groups, consumer advocates and the medical community. All are likely to comment again this time around. And we all know the gluten-free community has grown wildly even since 2007. That should result in even more commentary from all sides.
The comments posted in this latest round do reveal some interesting points, including some gluten-free consumers' continued desire for zero gluten in gluten-free food.
"I would prefer that the gluten-free label only be allowed on food and beverages that contain zero gluten," John Lewis wrote. "If it contains less than 20 ppm I would like that to be stated. Otherwise, I find the labeling misleading."
Fifteen-year-old Kenny Peyton Nathe got right to his point. "What I think you should do is pretty simple actually. If it is not 100 percent gluten free, don't put "gluten free on it."
On the other side of the debate about gluten levels, Jane Alcantara wrote, "As a person recently diagnosed with celiac, it is thrilling to think that gluten-free labeling may become a standard...I highly encourage the FDA to pass the labeling proposal."
Elizabeth Kordeck wrote that she fears too narrow of definition of gluten-free "will turn off food producers as they will not be able to meet overly stringent guidelines." "If 20 ppm has been widely tested and accepted as a safe level...that is a huge leap forward," she told the FDA.
Some companies have also commented, with Juliette Parker of the Marvelous Food Company writing that her company already meets a 5 ppm standard with two products. She wrote that it is not a problem to make products with 5 ppm or less of gluten. A representative of Genius Bread, a British product being introduced in the US and Canada, wrote in support of the 20 ppm standard, which is recognized internationally.
Some writers urged the FDA to require "gluten" to be labeled whenever it's in a food or medication though both of those moves are beyond the reach of this labeling regulation.
And cross-contamination from shared equipment and facilities was on the mind of others. They said it should be prohibited in the production of foods labeled gluten-free. One writer said she did not think naturally gluten-free foods like milk and eggs should "be allowed to be labeled gluten free just to capitalize on trend."
Whatever your personal opinion on the gluten-free definition, the comments are a reminder that the clock is ticking on sending yours to the FDA. The deadline is Oct. 3. It's something that's easy to put off, as we are aware at Gluten-Free Living given that we are still working on our own letter.
So get to it. We promise we will too!