The last two months have been filled with drama regarding the gluten-free diet and companies we celiacs rely on. First, a newspaper investigation reveals high levels of gluten in three of Wellshire Farms gluten-free products then Pace, Prego and some Campbell’s soups are suddenly not gluten-free? What’s going on?

Since the news broke on both of those issues, there are updates to be had. I feel I need to cover the updates because I covered the original “scandal” that happened.

Wellshire Farms and Whole Foods

In the Chicago Tribune’s investigation of Wellshire Farms, the newspaper tested and found high levels of gluten (in one case over 2,000 ppm) in the Chicken Nuggets and Corn Dogs. Whole Foods was quoted at the time saying it was “…investigating the issue, but that it was the supplier’s responsibility, not Whole Foods’, to ensure the Wellshire products are safe and legal.” In the meantime it kept the product on the shelves. But now one month later, Whole Foods is choosing to pull the food off the shelves because of complaints.

A follow up last week from the Chicago Tribune said, “Whole Foods received about 20 consumer complaints or inquiries, including from those who thought “gluten-free” meant zero-gluten, company spokeswoman Libba Letton said.” Letton was then quoted as saying , “Listening to what our customers had to say, in addition to looking at the facts, we decided we just needed to go ahead and pull the products.”

According to the Chicago Tribune, Whole Foods now says “…it will devise a strict definition of “gluten-free” for products sold in its stores and begin monitoring the items so such problems don’t recur.”

Campbell’s, Pace and Prego Gluten Concerns May Nearly Be Over

In December, the celiac community started to fume over what seemed like a surprise removal of some favorite gluten-free standards, like Pace Picante Sauce, Prego, and some Campbell’s soups. I do not buy any of these products, but found the outrage and potential ethical dilemma for these companies, intriguing. I ended up with a post on it back on December 10, 2008.

In the last week, Campbell’s has gone public with its “clarification” of the gluten-free status of products. I will link to glutenfreeinsd.com which had some of the most complete information to begin with back in December.

But here’s an excerpt of what the Consumer Affairs Department at Campbell’s had to say:

“After FDA issued its proposed regulation about gluten-free food labeling, Campbell temporarily removed some products from our Gluten-Free List so that we could review and update our checking and validation processes. We did this to ensure that we could provide consumers with the most accurate and up-to-date information. We re-checked each and every ingredient in each of the products on our list, and, as a further safeguard, we analyzed each product to assure that even incidental levels of gluten were not present. A product could not go back into our Gluten-Free List until each of these steps had been completed successfully. …Our updated Gluten Free List…will be available in early January to consumers who call us at 1-800-44-BROTH or 1-888-FOR-PREGO. Products in the Pace brand have been removed because they are currently being scheduled for the same rigorous review.”

Gluten-Free P.R. 101

I give Campbell’s high marks and low marks on handling this issue. High marks go to the company’s effort of testing and ensuring that when the company makes claims that its product is gluten free, it really is. But it gets low marks for how it handled this situation to begin with. The lack of direct information that came from customer service via email and on the phone seemed to feed the outrage in the celiac community.

How difficult is it to just be honest with what is going on? What are companies afraid of? I would much rather be told that a company has temporarily pulled the items off the shelves for gluten testing – rather than get the answers I received via email:

“Ms Amy Leger, we received your message and appreciate your taking the time to contact Campbell Soup Company to learn more about the use of gluten in our products.

At Campbell, our number one priority is to delight our consumers. I’m happy to send you a list of our gluten-free products via the mail. Please respond to this email with your complete mailing address.

Please keep in mind that product recipes change frequently and ingredients are periodically added and replaced. Therefore, I advise you to check the ingredient statement on each package to be certain that the product is still gluten-free.”

I hope I’ve been able to answer your question. Please contact the Consumer Response Center or visit Campbell’s website if you have additional questions.”

My answer to this email was that in fact they did not answer my question (which at the time was specifically about Pace products) and I would appreciate a direct answer.

Eventually, I got this short response: “We apologize for any inconvenience. At this time, Pace products are not on our gluten-free list.” Finally an answer, but clearly not as informative as it could be. This kind of email would make me never look at a Pace Product again. Why wouldn’t the response be fashioned more like “Pace Products are currently unavailable for those with gluten-free food requirements. We are undergoing rigorous testing to ensure our product is free of any gluten, before we put it back on our gluten-free list. Please check back with us as we expect an updated gluten-free product list to be available in 2009.”

Alright fine…I’ll let it go now that the company is coming back and fixing the PR nightmare it’s created for itself with the celiac community.

TheSavvyCeliac.com did several stories following up on the Chicago Tribune’s investigation involving Wellshire Farms. Please read more: When is Gluten-Free Really Gluten-Free?

Reaction Just Beginning After Gluten-Free Product Investigation

Become a Gluten-Free Advocate

Does Wellshire Farms Issue Pose an Ethical Dilemma for Health Food Stores?

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