Going Gluten-FreeOctober 1, 2014

Labeling and Legislation for Food Allergies & Gluten

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Posted by Erica Dermer


I recently had the pleasure of watching Jules Shepherd (aka GF Jules and author of numerous GF books), Robyn O’ Brien (author of The Unhealthy Truth) and Dave Bloom of SnackSafely.com present on food labeling and legislation. While this presentation was at the Food Allergy Bloggers Conference, this information is incredibly valuable to anyone in the food allergic universe.

To quote presenter Robyn O’ Brien, “This is our generations civil rights movement –to have access to clean safe and affordable food.” Advocacy and using our voice is what will help us make a safe world for food allergic and gluten-free children of the next generation.

The FDA vs. Gluten Labeling

Because gluten is a protein and not a food, it doesn’t qualify for an FDA mention for top allergens. Gluten must be addressed separately – and Jules and a team of awesome gluten-free champions (like Gluten Free & More magazine’s very own Beth Hillson) helped change that. In 2004, FALCPA gave FDA until 2011 to define gluten-free in labeling, and in 2011, they were tired of waiting. They started the 1 in 133.org campaign because they wanted a solution. Their team lobbied on The Hill while Jules was building worlds tallest gluten-free cake to get the public to notice. And who doesn’t notice the world’s tallest gluten-free cake? After lobbying, FDA came to cake event, and so did congressmen, and the event was in the Washington Post and USA Today. Jules noted that it was because they made a spectacle of an event that we even had an audience with congress, and because they had an audience with congress, they were able to get gluten-free labeling legislation.

Voluntary Statements

Many might be surprised to know that the voluntary statements on food products like “may contain wheat,” or “manufactured in a shared facility with peanuts,” are just that – voluntary.

Even if a product contains a warning for one allergen, it doesn’t mean it’s safe for other allergens, unless you truly know how they disclose their manufacturing process. Manufacturers only have to label for the top 8 allergens, and they don’t have to mention possible cross contamination in their voluntary statements. Just because a product has a “may contain” statement, it doesn't mean that it's not safer or less safe than one without a may contain statement. The bottom line, because they are voluntary statements and there is no legislation for voluntary statements, we don’t know if an item is truly safe.

Another scary point was brought up by Robyn talking about contacting customer service about possible contamination and presence of allergens. She said that call centers are often staffed with those who are unequipped to answer questions that a food-allergic person or parent would ask.

Similarly for gluten, on new packaging, gluten-free can be labeled however the manufacturer wants. A brand does not have to pay for certification and/or auditing (ex. GFCO, Celiac Sprue, NFCA), but by placing the words “gluten free” on the label, the food must be less than 20 parts per million. The FDA does not require testing, but it will be difficult for manufacturers to label their products and not test or not get certified. Unfortunately, as a community, we are going to find that some manufacturers don't really get it. We must remain advocates and call the FDA if we have found a product that isn’t safe. Yes, it would have been much clearer if there was label standardization, but that’s how the legislation is now and we have to adapt to new labeling.

Who Should We Trust?

Let’s try to find the good news with legislation and labeling for the food allergic community – and there is one. People and brands are more open to the conversations than ever.

The CEO of SnackSafely.com recommends picking companies that you have faith in and believe in – one you can trust. Over and over again, Robyn found hope in food-allergy-friendly brands and entrepreneurs – someone like a baby brand started by a mom with food allergic children. These pioneers are the ones that will help shape our marketplace and the lead the future for transparent brands. Jules hopes that gluten-free consumers get acquainted with brands and buy trusted brands, brands that are certified by an outside agency.

There are also brands that are not willing to move forward with the conversation because they are not as open to transparency in the manufacturing process as other. Robyn mentioned that the companies that aren't doing this are losing market share and opening up a space for entrepreneurs who believe in transparency.

How Can Just One Person Become An Advocate?

These panelists were passionate about everyone getting involved in food labeling advocacy for themselves. While you may not feel like you can make a difference – it is individuals that have a cause that truly shape the future. For every phone call or email that you place to legislators or food manufacturers, they realize that there are dozens, if not hundreds, of people that have to feel the same way.

Overall, it was profound session that moved the audience to action and advocacy. Robyn’s final takeaway was equally as moving.

"A fundamental human right of information to protect our child. The food industry for a while looked at us as a complete pain in our tail. They were condescending and dismissive. I've gone back to them with there is not a parent in this country that would choose a food allergy diagnosis for their child. We are terrified. Were standing in the aisles doing the best that we can, trying to keep the child alive"


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