Monday, April 8, 2013

Is the long gluten-free wait nearly over?

It seems gluten-free labeling rules may finally be put into place by early summer.

The Food and Drug Administration at the end of February sent the rules to the White House Office of Management and Budget. This is the last step in the regulatory approval process, according to the American Celiac Disease Alliance (ACDA).

The ACDA says the budget office attempts to complete review of rules within 90 days, meaning a final gluten-free definition could be ready in early June. That’s a not a certainty – we’ve learned nothing is when it comes to gluten-free labeling – but the ACDA is hopeful a decision will fall in that timeframe.

Some gluten-free advocates are still leaving nothing to chance, including Rep. Nita Lowey, a New York Congresswoman who authored the original bill calling for gluten-free labeling, and Alessio Fasano, MD, a celiac disease expert and director of the Center for Celiac Research at Mass General Hospital for Children. The pair co-wrote a blog in the Huffington Post last week pushing for federal standards for a gluten-free products.

"Until there are proper food labeling regulations for gluten-free products, people with celiac disease are at the mercy of unregulated food manufacturers to set the exposure level to gluten. This is like allowing a stranger to determine the insulin dose that a person with diabetes receives without knowing anything about their individual needs," they wrote. 

If it’s been so long since the rules were proposed that you’ve forgotten what they call for, here’s a quick recap.

Foods labeled “gluten free” could not contain wheat, barley or rye. Ingredients made from these grains would be largely prohibited, but there is allowance for some that have been processed to remove gluten protein. Oats would not be allowed unless they are specialty gluten-free oats grown and handled to prevent cross-contamination.

Foods labeled gluten free would have to test to less than 20 parts per million of gluten, a standard considered safe by many celiac disease experts and adopted in other countries around the world. The tests would measure gluten from any source, including cross-contamination. Currently a gluten-free label can be used on a food that does not include gluten in the ingredients, but cross-contamination does not have to be taken into account. Gluten-free labeling would continue to be voluntary.

The rules would apply to foods regulated by the FDA, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which oversee meat, poultry and eggs and alcoholic beverages, respectively, have said they will also apply FDA standards once the a gluten-free definition is approved.

It’s not clear whether the proposed rules and the final rules will be identical. In particular, tests for gluten have improved since the proposal was made, and there may be some adjustment in that area.

The rules are edging close to being five years late in coming. So while we are hopeful, as always, we’re also cautious. We’ll keep you up to date on the latest news in print and online.

Amy Ratner


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