FDA Action on Gluten-Free Food Labeling Expected Soon

Shopping for BreadThe safety of our food supply is a major concern for most Americans. Where does our food come from, how is it farmed and prepared and can we trust the information that is given to us on the packaging and store displays? With so many consumers watching what they eat and paying attention to the contents of their packaged foods, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has finally stepped up to the plate (so to speak) to provide regulations for the labeling of gluten-free products.

Gluten-free foods are foods, of course, that are free of “gluten,” a protein that is present in wheat, barley and rye. While this protein is a natural part of the grain, it can cause health problems for people who are sensitive or allergic to it. Ingesting gluten, for some, can cause an autoimmune response that then spirals into a host of physical ailments, including bloating, vomiting, and stomach pain. For people who have celiac disease, gluten causes the production of antibodies that then attack the lining of the person’s stomach. Those who suffer from celiac disease must eat a diet free of gluten. According to the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center, celiac disease affects at least 3 million Americans and if left untreated, can result in osteoporosis, infertility, neurological problems and cancer.

The Current State of the Law

The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 went into effect in 2006 and has made it possible for those with celiac disease to determine from a label whether or not a product contains wheat, and therefore is likely to be unsafe to eat. There are many holes in this regulation, however, as rye and barley also contain gluten and these grains are not required to be disclosed on the label.

The Next Step for Gluten-Free Labeling

The FDA is now set to implement new labeling requirements for gluten-free products. The new requirements are expected to ensure that products so labeled will not contain gluten at levels more than 20 parts per million (the level below which measuring tools become unreliable, according to the FDA). Celiac advocates are hoping the FDA will lower the definition of gluten-free to between 5-15 parts per million (ppm) as measuring methods have greatly improved and current methods are capable of reliably detecting gluten at such low levels.

The new requirements are currently under review by the White House and a final action is expected later this month (March 2013).

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