Letters to Senators

by | G+ Amy Leger

November 25th, 2008

Dear Senators,

I am coming to you asking for help for people who must adhere to special diets for major medical reasons. In my family’s case, it is a gluten-free diet. Last week, the Chicago Tribune printed an alarming story about Wellshire Farms’ chicken nuggets and corn dogs made and marketed as “gluten-free” (not containing wheat, rye, barley and some oats), when it turned out they actually contained some gluten. The newspaper sent the products to the University of Nebraska’s food-allergy labs; the test results showed the Wellshire Farms’ products with varying high levels of gluten. Yet the products are not being recalled, despite two documented cases of anaphylactic reactions in children with wheat allergies.

I have a 9-year-old child and a 17-year-old exchange student both with celiac disease. Celiac is an autoimmune disorder, where gluten—the protein found in wheat, barley, rye and some oats – is toxic to the person’s small intestine. When gluten is in the system, it damages the gut to a point of not absorbing any nutrients, thus causing a domino effect of health problems.

Strict adherence to a gluten-free diet is essential for celiacs. Parents like me, and thousands of others across the country, rely on companies who create fantastic gluten-free products and make our lives a little more normal for our kids. Minnesota has a very strong celiac community, including the Twin Cities chapter of Raising our Celiac Kids, as well as the Northland Celiac Support Group. Many of us right now are wondering whether we will ever trust the Wellshire Farms products again. Not only that, the skeptic in me is wondering what other products are out there with the same problem!

Flaw in the System?

According to the article, there is a flaw in the system. The best way to explain it is with a direct excerpt from the Chicago Tribune article dated November 21, 2008.

Many manufacturers test their products for allergens and have set up special assembly lines to prevent cross-contamination. But other companies, particularly small ones with limited resources, acknowledge taking limited precautions. Others do little or no testing, and the government does not require them to do so.

The FDA, which oversees the vast majority of packaged foods, said it trusts firms to police themselves.

The USDA, which regulates meat, poultry and egg products, is even more lax. 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.

The relationship between consumers who need some form of an allergen-free food and the manufacturer is based on much more than trust. It is based on the confidence that this company you’re supporting will treat your health as if it were the most important thing to them. That if employees of the company heard anyone got sick from their products their hearts would sink with disappointment, but then it would motivate them into a passionate action to make sure it never happens again.

I don’t get the sense of that passion from Wellshire Farms. There are no recalls, no warnings, and just one apology about our “inconvenience” for apparently confusing the government standards on gluten. The only way to get the checks and balances in place for this is to enforce new rules that include oversight of compliance in labeling and production laws.

Fixing the Flaws

I know I am not a lawmaker, but here are some suggestions on how things should change:

  • FDA must push forward and agree to a law requiring mandatory labeling of gluten in the ingredient listing. The agency should also choose a lowest possible gluten standard at 20 ppm (which is the current standard in Europe) so all companies can work by the same rules. The agency must then enforce the rules and hold companies accountable.
  • The USDA must begin testing meat products for undeclared allergens.

As a result, these two changes will:

  • Force companies to be more proactive in testing their ingredients to ensure it is free from the allergen they claim.
  • Advance the journey toward safer food products for everyone.

Senators Coleman and Klobuchar, with your involvement in the Senate Agriculture Committee, we respectfully ask for your help. Please take this issue on and fix the wrongs that are hurting our families who are struggling with an already difficult diet.

I am more than willing to talk about this issue with your further. Thank you very much for your time.

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