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A Grassroots Cash Mob in the Name of Gluten Free Oats

A small group of gluten-free bloggers are organizing a virtual cash mob this week for a very special company with an important mission. For anyone guessing, a cash mob is a gathering of people at a place of business with an objective of buying from that business to show support. The glorious advent of online shopping allows celiacs all over the country to participate in this particular cash mob, and they’ll want to. The fate of purity protocol oats is at stake! This is a story about GF Harvest and the gluten free production of oats.

What is Purity Protocol?

“Purity protocol” oats are a hot topic today, as more manufacturers are exploring other options on providing gluten-free oats to our community. To give a bit of background into these special gluten-free oats, purity protocol oats are those that have stringent rules to avoid gluten at every point in the manufacturing and production of oats. This includes (according to GF Harvest):

• Planting pure seed stock with pre-planting field history audits
• All equipment inspected and approved for gluten-free production
• Each field inspected prior to harvest by the company and a third party
• Harvested seed only stored in dedicated gluten-free grain storage
• Processed in a dedicated and certified gluten-free oat mill
• Packaged on a dedicated and certified gluten-free packaging line
• Third party audits showing the final product is certified gluten-free

Because of recent introductions of “gluten free” non-purity protocol oats (mechanically separated or optically separated, etc.), GF Harvest, a Wyoming family farm run by celiacs, is struggling with sales. A recent piece in the Powell Tribune states that GF Harvest’s planting of their 2016 crop is tentatively on hold.

Brands that do not use purity protocol oats often cite that there simply isn’t enough of these oats to meet their growing demand to offer gluten-free products to the mainstream market. Ultimately, the cost of selling mechanically separated oats is far less. Huge manufacturers like Quaker Oats and General Mills can market theoretically gluten free oatmeal to the consumer at cheaper prices than purity protocol, and they can make profits off it.

An associated post on GF Harvest’s Facebook page elaborates on the issue: “We have noticed a change going through the oat market. Once we had trucks heading out with 50lb bags to your favorite vendors who use oats in their product. Now we are seeing that change because of mechanical and optical separation….We want to thank you for your support and want to let you know that we are going to readjust our focus to try and see the best place to serve our gluten free customers. You are like family to us and want to serve you the best we can.”

As a celiac, the possibility of losing a safe brand that I love makes me queasy! I had a chance to ask Forrest Smith, co-owner and marketing manager of GF Harvest, some questions about the Powell Tribune article and how the celiac community could help. Below are some key points from the interview that discuss purity protocol oats, his farm, and the future of their business.

“As a fellow celiac who must be on a strict gluten free diet, purity protocol oats are the only thing that my family and I will eat because we understand all of the cross-contamination points from planting to the package. Purity protocol is not a new way of processing our oats, it is just a set of words that might better describe what we have been doing all along and why we are important to gluten free consumers who are not familiar with the entire oat manufacturing process.”

“The big concern for us is that people are being sold oat products that are called “gluten free” that could be affecting their health.  Under the new FDA regulation the words “gluten free” on a box only means that a “batch” of the product must be able to be sampled and an average of these samples must equal 20 ppm or less…they do not require any independent testing or a detailed testing protocol to hold the companies accountable…With these kinds of rules some of the so called “gluten free” oat products on the market today may not be as pure as they have been in the past. To save money and increase profit margins, many manufactures are moving to common or commodity oats because they are cheaper, and now they can still call them “gluten free.”  I do understand that many people are choosing to be on a gluten free diet that may not require a true 10 ppm or less product, but unless we are able to know what products come from purity protocol seed stock, we will never know [what is safe for 10ppm or less].”  

“All of our oats are “Grown to be Gluten Free”™ with over a decade of proven gluten-free purity protocols. We have a dream of being able to help expand the options for everyone on a gluten-free diet through a multitude of oat-based products. The supply is not the problem – we have a highly trained and proven grower base. The demand is the question. So, if as a celiac community we are going to accept cleaned commodity oats as good enough, then the demand for certified 10 ppm or less oats will affect dedicated purity protocol operations.  As the article said, we had expanded last year to be able to handle the growing demand that now has changed with the new, sorted, cheaper oats. We are not planning on quitting, but times are tough and [we’re] required is to reduce team members along with any unnecessary expenses due to the changes. As part of our “retooling” we are trying to expand our retail product line into local stores near you to better serve you – but the shelf space or free fill is very expensive for a small company such as ours to absorb.”

“Could this affect how well we can serve you, what products we have and possible the price point – yes. If we are not able to run our mill at full capacity for optimal efficiency with a mixture of bulk and retail products, the price per pound could be affected. As stated before in the press, times are tough, people are losing their positions, and we will not be growing as much oats this year, but we are not going to give up!”

The Cash Mob, and What Else You Can Do

Forrest urges everyone to ask their favorite brands to use purity protocol oats, “Call every company that makes a gluten free oat product and ask them if they are only using purity protocol oats in it. They might not tell who you the company they are buying from, but they should be able to answer this question…Tell them that you are not willing to take the risk of eating sorted oats so you will not be buying this product anymore.” Tricia from Gluten Free Watchdog is compiling an online source for consumers to access what brands use purity protocol oats.

A grass-roots community campaign is running this week to support GF Harvest and their oat farm. It was started by Johnna Perry, of In Johnna’s Kitchen, and is joined by many gluten-free influencers in the community. Johnna states, “When I read the article in the Powell Tribune regarding the challenges GF Harvest is facing in selling purity protocol oats, I saw an opportunity to not only support an American family farm, but also an opportunity to educate readers about purity protocol oats versus common commodity sorted oats…Not only are we gluten-free consumers at risk of losing the option to purchase truly gluten-free oats, but a family farm is in limbo – trying to decide if planting a gluten-free crop this year is even necessary…They need our support right now…and we need their oats.” She adds, “If another reason is needed to purchase their oats, it would simply be that they are the best oats I’ve ever eaten. You’ve tried them, right? I don’t know anyone who has that would disagree – they are terrific oats!”

Key influencer, Jules Shepard GF Jules sells gluten-free baking mixes and blends that contain purity protocol oats. She told us, “The issue of whether or not mechanically separated oats are truly safe enough for celiacs is one that has caused concern for many in our community. Many people still don’t even know there’s a difference, much less how to identify a product which contains them. Wherever you stand on the question of their safely, don’t we all want more choices, not fewer? Don’t we want to continue to have the option to buy oats that we’re certain are safe? If family farms growing purity protocol oats are squeezed out of the market, we’ll have fewer options, plain and simple.”

The cash mob organizers are directing consumers to buy on Amazon and GF Harvest’s online webstore. Johnna mentioned that GF Harvest added a starter pack of oats grown in Wyoming under strict protocol, available for $29.95 including shipping. Each package contains rolled oats, quick rolled oats, steel cut oats, product request forms and recipes.

Forrest mentioned, “Check out our new GoPack™ individual packages of gluten-free oatmeal.” To help get these on store shelves near you, print off a product request forms, personally take it into your local store and ask the manager to stock our product.”

He ended with, “…we started out on my parents kitchen table with many prayers, a positive can-do attitude, and the determination to refer to what some people call problems as opportunities to learn as we move forward.”  

On a personal note, I will be purchasing their products this week to show my support for this family farm and what they are doing for the celiac community. I hope you take a minute and support this family farm too.