When is Gluten-Free Really Gluten-Free?

by | G+ Amy Leger

That’s a good question – according to an excellent in-depth investigation done by the Chicago Tribune. The alarming but informative article threw into question the “gluten-freeness” of celiac-friendly foods we are eating and/or giving our children. The investigation looked at other allergens as well.

It found some products that claim to be gluten-free, actually contain gluten, in some cases, the gluten levels were high. My jaw dropped. Who is dropping the ball? The manufacturer? It’s likely, but the bigger issue goes all the way to the US Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration. According to the article, the two government agencies “rarely inspect food to find problems and [don't] punish companies that repeatedly violate labeling laws.” Someone must ensure the product is free from the allergen it claims! How can we as celiacs and parents of celiacs not depend on the products apparently created just for us??

Wellshire Farms in the Spotlight

Take some of those gluten-free chicken nuggets, chicken corn dogs and beef corn dogs made by Wellshire Farms. The Chicago Tribune reports two cases where children with severe wheat allergies had to be injected with their “epi-pen” and visit the hospital after eating them. Those nuggets, and new containers of the aforementioned Wellshire Farms products purchased by the Chicago Tribune, went to the nation’s lead food-allergy lab at the University of Nebraska for testing. All of them tested positive for gluten. The USDA and Wellshire Farms were alerted to the test results with the hopes of making change. Right now, the nuggets remain on store shelves – marked with the claim of being gluten-free. Wellshire Farms’ owner Louis Colemeco told the Chicago Tribune, “…his products are safe”. But he has stopped production in light of the two illnesses and until he can find a new company who can “guarantee the batter is gluten-free”.

Scary Food Future for Celiacs?

The last few years have been very good for celiacs. Tasty gluten-free pastas, pretzels, donuts, even ravioli have donned the shelves at grocery stores and specialty stores across the country. Eating a great gluten-free meal has never been more convenient. But now, all this doubt has been thrown into the mix for me.

Given the revelation of this investigation, what can we do and who do we trust? Government oversight? Apparently not. Writers for the Chicago Tribune talked to the FDA and the USDA about oversight and accountability about companies’ allergy-friendly claims. “The FDA, which oversees the vast majority of packaged foods, said it trusts firms to police themselves,” the paper said. “The USDA, which regulates meat, poultry and egg products, is even more lax,” the report continued.  “It said it never tests for undeclared allergens, such as eggs or peanuts, because these ingredients by themselves are not prohibited foods–ignoring the fact that products containing hidden allergens are potentially illegal and deadly.” We can and must demand accountability from our federal government and the companies they oversee.

Companies which claim the foods they manufacture are gluten-free, peanut-free, dairy-free, et al, must abide by those standards. If the standards are not met a recall must be put in place to minimize the possibility of dangerous reactions to potentially tainted food. Is the next step Congress? The old saying goes “it would take an act of Congress…” well from the sounds of the way this food safety issue is going, it will take an act of Congress. How many more trips to the ER for some children? How many days spent vomiting at home wracking your brain over what you ate that would prompt a gluten reaction like this; and then eating the tainted food again because it’s “gluten-free” – only to get sick…again.

This investigation found an apparent break in the system that must be fixed for the health of all people with food allergies. Because after all, when we buy something that says it’s free of a certain allergen, it really should be.

The Chicago Tribune poured in a significant amount time into this investigation, please visit its website and learn more about what the journalists discovered.

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