As you likely know by now, last week Domino’s launched a gluten-free pizza that the company specifically said is not designed for those who have celiac disease but for those who are “mildly sensitive” to gluten. While the crust is gluten-free, cross-contamination is a problem.
If that alone was not enough to stir up confusion and distress in the gluten-free community, the pizza also came with backing of sorts from the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, a celiac disease support group. Domino’s consulted NFCA on the launch of the pizza and was given the group’s new “Amber” seal, which is part of a two-tier certification program NFCA just launched.
The result was that many who expect NFCA to look out for those who have celiac disease were instead seeing red.
University of Maryland’s Center for Celiac Research and the Gluten Intolerance Group put out statements denouncing the pizza. GIG, a celiac disease support group that also certifies restaurants, went further and called for complete discontinuation of the Amber seal.
1in133, the grassroots organization that formed last year to push for approval of gluten-free labeling regulations, quickly took up the cause and started a movement called “Ditch Amber.” The group set up a Facebook page to collect signatures on a petition that urges NFCA to get rid of the designation. At last count more than 700 people had signed.
Alice Bast, president of NFCA, today said the group is "looking for productive dialogue" as it assesses its next steps. "We launched the Amber designation to solve a problem that is not going to go away on it's own, she said, noting that NFCA is taking comments by Alessio Fasano, director of CFCR, "very seriously." The NFCA board is set to meet later this week, Bast said.
I first learned about the Amber seal in a web press conference NFCA conducted recently to announce its new restaurant certification system. In short, restaurants that can guarantee gluten-free meals are truly gluten free get a “Green” seal. Those that can’t, but are trying - perhaps by using gluten-free ingredients, get an Amber seal. The seal is supposed to connote “caution” for most gluten-free diners and from the get-go NFCA said the Domino’s pizza was not for those who have celiac disease.
Even before news of Domino’s gluten-free pizza broke, I questioned the need for the Amber seal. I asked why the group did not just set a standard and tell restaurants they could not get NFCA’s designation unless they met it. Bast said NFCA did not want to cut these restaurants off, but rather wanted to keep working with them until they could meet the standards of the Green seal.
I feared that the lesser seal would simply give restaurants not truly committed to meeting gluten-free needs an easy way to get into the gluten-free market without having to do the necessary work. At the same time, they could boast a seal from a respected celiac support group.
NFCA said it saw the seal as a way to warn gluten-free consumers about kitchen practices that lead to cross contamination – something the group says is common in many restaurants with gluten-free menus but unbeknownst to diners.
I saw it as simply adding uncertainty. In early talks about rules for gluten-free labeling on packaged foods, consumers said they did not want two designations for gluten-free products. They did not want low-gluten and gluten-free labels, which is essentially what you get for restaurants with NFCA’s two tier system.
But my biggest worry about the two tiers was that it would similarly divide the gluten-free community into two groups – those who have celiac disease and those whose gluten-free needs are not as specifically medically defined.
Gluten-free was once strictly the purview of people with celiac disease. Hardly anyone else had heard of it. Few food makers and restaurants cared about it. And it was much more difficult to live with.
Slowly word began to spread. A stalwart group of people with gluten sensitivity went gluten free despite medical advice the diet wasn’t necessary until their true need finally started to get recognition. And suddenly the world at large was picking up on the gluten-free diet.
Those with celiac disease have been benefiting all along the way. Supermarkets now carry a wide variety of gluten-free products, restaurants have more gluten-free choices, and foods that you once had to give up entirely are easier to make or buy.
But if we are honest in the celiac disease community, in the back of our minds, there has always been a fear that a day would come when the gluten-free desires of the larger world would start to work against us. That “gluten free” might not be “gluten free” enough.
Domino’s seems a first broad, national, highly advertised step in that direction. Still, I am not surprised the petition is not calling for Domino’s to stop making the crust. Instead it asks the NFCA to stop putting a stamp of approval, however qualified, on the pizza.
It’s not easy navigating a special diet. That task becomes harder when someone with celiac disease has to explain why the pizza a well-meaning friend has just bought for them isn’t safe even if a seal from a national celiac disease support group is attached to it. My daughter has received messages from multiple friends excited about the news that there is now gluten-free pizza at Domino’s. They have no idea it’s not safe for her.
A restaurant's half-hearted effort to be gluten-free is not really all that new. Most gluten-free diners have found gluten-free menus that really aren’t safe just by asking the questions they know are critical. What is new is a celiac support group saying we can live with this.
That’s why the NFCA is taking the heat. In my personal opinion, it's justified. This misstep does not wipe out all the good NFCA has done for those who have celiac disease, as some insinuate. But no matter how well intentioned the two-tier system is, it simply does not work.