Wednesday, September 28, 2011

How should gluten-free grains be labeled?

The Food and Drug Administration is taking a second look at naturally gluten-free grains as part of its effort to finally pass rules for gluten-free labeling.

When the FDA announced in August that it was re-opening public comment on a proposed gluten-free definition, the agency said it was reconsidering how inherently gluten-free grains should be labeled.

Under the proposal, all naturally gluten-free food can only be labeled gluten free if the label also says any other food of that type is also gluten free. For example, sorghum flour labeled gluten free has to say all other sorghum flour is gluten free.

Now the FDA is considering whether gluten-free grains should be labeled differently than other naturally gluten-free food. That’s because of the risk that grains may be cross-contaminated by wheat, barley or rye.

Cross-contamination of grains can occur in the field or through shared equipment during transport, processing or packaging. A recent small study showed that some gluten-free grains actually contained fairly high levels of cross contamination.

The FDA is considering whether grain and flour companies that take steps to prevent cross-contamination should be allowed to use the gluten-free label without implying that products made by less diligent companies are just as safe.

The bottom line is whether the gluten-free label on naturally gluten-free grains would help gluten-free consumers select products that are safer.

The labeling rule for all naturally gluten-free one-ingredient foods was proposed to prevent food companies from using the gluten-free label to give the false impression that their products are somehow better than identical products. For example, a gluten-free label on naturally gluten-free water is meaningless since all water is gluten free.

Grains are the only naturally gluten-free food the FDA has specifically said it is interested in reviewing in regards to the labeling provision. Other naturally gluten-free, one-ingredient foods like canned fruit and vegetables, milk, butter and eggs have minimal, if any, risk of being cross contaminated. But changes to overall rules for labeling of inherently gluten-free foods could be made based on public comments sent to the agency.

Most important, you only have until Monday to comment on the gluten-free definition. You can  send your  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

And if you want to sign onto the letter available from 1in133, a grass roots group that formed to push for gluten-free rules, you have to do so by noon Sunday. That will give the group time  to get the information into a form that can be sent to the FDA.  The FDA estimates it will take about a year to go through all the steps before gluten-free rules are finalized.

Rules for gluten-free labeling are already long overdue. The FDA was supposed to finish them three years ago as part of the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act. Under the proposed rules, food labeled gluten free must contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten. This cut off would include trace amounts for gluten from cross contamination and would be verified through testing.

Amy Ratner


kingraham321 said...

As excited as I am to see GF grains labelled so that we can avoid cross-contamination, I worry that companies will use this as an excuse to increase the prices on these items, since they will now have to pay for testing and related fees. Any thoughts?

Amy said...

You raise a valid point about price increases. If a company decides to use a gluten-free label once the FDA finalizes a gluten-free definition, they have to be certain their product could pass FDA's standard. For some companies the testing needed could result in a price increase. But gluten-free labeling is voluntary and a company could continue to produce an inherently gluten-free grain or flour and not label it gluten free. In that case, they would not have to meet any FDA standards. Many people do feel safer if they see a gluten-free label and are willing to pay more for assurance that it has been tested for cross contamination. But the high cost of gluten-free food is an economic burden.