Many people with celiac disease are in an uproar right now….”disturbing”, “unacceptable”, and even “CRAZY” are the words in the last day that have described the “gluten free” practices at California Pizza Kitchen (CPK). Only about 6 weeks into their new gluten free menu, a groundswell of anger among the celiac and gluten-sensitive community appears to be bringing to light a major issue: a gluten free menu — that really isn’t gluten free.

CPK’s “Gluten Free” Menu

Let’s start on July 8th, Triumph Dining (a very well-respected source of information for gluten free food and dining) posted on their blog the announcement that CPK was coming out with a gluten free pizza. They received what the Triumph Dining writer called a “love note” from CPK announcing the news:

“CPK has taken notice of the increased demand with more than 3 million Americans affected by Celiac Disease and created a specialty menu with various gluten free items,” it said to Triumph Dining.

However later in the post, the writer copied the disclaimer that reads on the gluten free menu to this day.

“Additionally, normal kitchen operations involve shared cooking and preparation areas…We are therefore unable to guarantee that any menu item is free from gluten or any other allergen, and we assume no responsibility for guests with food allergies or sensitivities.”

When I read the article (about two weeks after the article posted on Triumph Dining’s website), I chimed in like many before me — and I still feel this way today. How can CPK send a news release to a celiac-friendly and trusted website, market/pitch the new menu to celiacs, but then by the end of the release say it’s really not for them?

Gluten free menu is not for people with Celiac Disease

Since the CPK announcement in late June/early July a groundswell of very public frustration, concern, and distrust has ensued.  My first experience on this story was through a celiac-disease.com article written by Kimberly Bouldin.  Bouldin honestly tells everyone she’d been to CPK  three times and had a good experience each time.  But kept hearing about cross contamination concerns so she investigated it.

“I asked about the common ladles and toppings. He assured me the toppings were gluten-free, but then I pointed out that if an employee who was making a wheat-based pizza were to stick their hands in the toppings, they have just contaminated that container with gluten. I went on to point the same thing out about the sauces. If you scoop the sauce onto a wheat-based pizza and spread it around with the ladle and then use the same ladle for the gluten-free pizza, the gluten-free pizza is now contaminated. He looked a little surprised at first and then agreed that this was certainly an issue.” Author Kimberly Bouldin for celiac-disease.com

At the time of the posting Bouldin was awaiting a response from the restaurant.

Around that same time, a Facebook note was posted by Jennifer Frank on the Celiac Support Group Children’s Hospital Boston Facebook page.  It was a comprehensive, emotional and direct  note about her cross contamination concerns.  The article began with her mentioning she was doing her due diligence by questioning CPK about their gluten free pizza before bringing her two daughters with her.  Staff explained their practices including shared ladles and toppings and then pointed to their disclaimer.  Frank stated in her article,

“I explained that what they were doing was more than incidental cross contamination, it was inevitable.”

She then inquired about CPK making one “celiac safe” pizza to which she was told to call corporate.  She reached the Director of Culinary Development where it sounds like they discussed it.  He got back to her a few hours later with a resounding no…they wouldn’t be changing their kitchen practices.

“During the course of our conversations, he also told me that he guessed that CPK’s gluten free pizza is not meant for people with celiac disease, but for people who just choose not to eat gluten!!!! That is just crazy and a total slap in the face to those individuals who have celiac disease. When it was clear CPK was not going change their practices, I asked Paul who made the final decision. He said it went all the way up to the CEO.”

Fast forward to August 3rd when Triumph Dining reported a follow-up article acknowledging cross-contamination concerns at CPK.  They wrote a very balanced article explaining that they heard from both folks who were frustrated at CPK and others who haven’t had a problem eating their pizza.  Their recommendation to readers was “when in doubt, leave it out”.

 Questions remain

This leads to so many questions….

  • Is CPK just being called out because they’re being honest and they’re a national chain?
  • Are they wrong for acknowledging that they won’t be changing their kitchen practices?
  • Who is the standard for which all gluten *free* menus are created?  I thought it was for celiac folks  or those who can’t tolerate gluten.  But now it appears the fad diet might be taking over the “standard”– leaving a lack of education about celiac disease and cross contamination…in other words the menu is not for people with celiac disease. (I saw that in a disclaimer on the gluten free menu for Jason’s Deli a few weeks ago).
  • And as the Facebook article suggests…. I wonder, are we outraged because restaurants are  just doing what they want and not bothering to be educated — which ticks us off!  Some people might say — Life’s not fair.

I ask, how can we ever feel comfortable eating out if there’s no national standard (like the FDA’s upcoming voluntary gluten free labeling rule) for what restaurants must accomplish and maintain in order to call menu items gluten free.

Right now, this is pure evidence there is no standard and restaurants can all do what they want.  While some restaurants take their gluten free menus VERY seriously, have gone through education and applied what they’ve learned.  Many, many others have not.  Could this issue with the CPK gluten free menu lead to possible change some day for all restaurants?  I say– I hope so!

Keep the discussion flowing. Feel free to leave your comments below.

 

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14 Responses to “Could Uproar over CPK’s “Gluten Free” Pizza Lead to Widespread Change?”

  1. Just shows us there is a long way to go in raising awareness about Celiac disease and what it really is.

  2. For me the problem really comes down to their intent and motive which sounds to me like was taking notice of the 3 millions American’s with Celiac . . . If they really were trying to meet the needs of those individuals then they have failed, no discussion. If they simply wanted to meet the needs of individuals going gluten-free for which cross contamination isn’t an issue, fine. Whatever, I surely won’t be dining there. Contrast this to Mad Jack’s. I have zero expectation anywhere outside my own kitchen and eat out with a very guarded attitude. Getting angry at CPK isn’t really going to serve me well in the long run, wasted energy. I like to focus on where I can safely eat and just be happy about that.

  3. Thanks for your feedback Nate and Cari!
    Cari, There absolutely is something to be said for those restaurants who are educated. Great restaurants with greater gluten free practices get a lot of loyalty/business from devoted celiacs.
    Nate– so much more awareness still needs to be done..you are right.

  4. If you look into most gluten-free menu disclaimers at large chains, you’ll find similar words that are basically a CYA statement. This is true even with a ton of restaurants that GIG certifies. However, in the case of CPK, it seems clear that they company has no idea how to roll out a safe (as feasibly possible) gluten-free menu. The gluten-free crust they serve is among the worst I’ve ever had and when I went back with friends who wanted to try the pizza, I had a salad. However, for the folks that like the crust, it’s unfortunate that the company has flubbed this up so badly. In our area, there seem to be more trendy gf-ers dining out than people who can’t eat gluten which only makes matters worse. I wish the fad dieters would move on to the next diet already.

  5. Yes Amy they do get more business, and it isn’t just my business because usually I am bringing in a group who otherwise might not be going to that particular spot were it not for me.

  6. I’ve never eaten at that wretched, overpriced place and probably never will. So sad that a company is willing to fail instead of do things right. It’s so obviously a move to take advantage of a trend rather than think about the customer first.

    There is always a risk when a Celiac eats at a restaurant and I don’t mind a CYA statement, but I’m willing to take a risk when I know there is a dedicated fryer, ingredients, etc. versus blatant disregard for a customer.

  7. I think there is a big difference between incidental cross contamination & the knowingly careless practices that have been taking place at CPK. I have been tweeting with CPK about the procedures & here is the last tweet on July 28th:

    “calpizzakitchen: @gfreeislife We will keep you posted on new procedures put into place once all have been implemented. Thank you for contacting us!
    7:37pm, Jul 28 from TweetDeck”

    I will see what I can find out.

    Kim

  8. Thanks for the update Kim!
    The feedback on this article is very interesting! Keep your viewpoint coming!

  9. I will say that I have eaten at Jason’s Deli (though I was very wary about it from reading their disclaimer) after another friend with celiac said that they were actually very vigilante about contamination. When they made my sandwich, the people who came into contact with it all changed gloves and prepared my sandwich on a fresh piece of kitchen paper (? not sure what the technical name of it is) so that it didn’t come into contact with the regular preparation table. I don’t know about every location, of course, but that one at least seemed to be making an effort. On some level, I think chains that are making glutenfull and gluten-free meals in the same facility have to put some sort of disclaimer in the event that someone is careless or that something unusual happens to get it contaminated. From reading this article about CPK, however, that doesn’t seem to be their intent at all. If they don’t even know the basics – not to mix serving utensils or touch glutenfull and gluten-free products with the same gloves – then they have failed to perform adequate research to protect their customers. And if they aren’t willing to negotiate their practices to include their actual “intended audience”, then it just shows that they never really cared about their celiac customers, only the “health nuts” (excuse me while I gag) who have decided that gluten-free is the new Jenny Craig. This is just the price of raising awareness for a condition with a special diet: everyone wants in, and they’re the ones who get treated specially, not those who actually asked for help in the first place.

  10. @Chelsea–they will change gloves and stuff at Jason’s but they also use shared ingredients so if the mayo spreader touched wheat bread before they make your sandwhich, then your gluten free bread gets gunked up with wheat-crumb-touching-mayo-stuff. Jason’s is definitely another chain that caters to the ‘trend.’

    It has to have clean hands, clean utensils, clean ingredients, and clean surface to have the greatest chance of success of no contamination.

  11. I guess what bothers me is their statement seems so different from other gf restaurants. For example, many will say we take many precautions to keep foods gluten free but it is an environment with gluten. They don’t say shared prep areas and ingredients typically if it is a gf menu. It just makes me feel like they don’t care about us and if we get sick or not. What was the point of highlighting all of the Celiacs if we can’t take part in their menu? We never ate there before going gf so it is not a big deal but I just don’t like their stance on the whole thing!

  12. Restaurants are at least recognizing the real need for GF items. That said, their ability to properly prepare and keep safe their GF items until they arrive at the table is challenging (even when they are most thoughtful). That is exactly why we built GG’s Original. We provide GF items for restaurants and they can even be delivered to the table sealed. At least the recognition of the need for GF items to be included in restaurants has arrived. Now the execution must be fine-tuned.

  13. I found out after I ordered the bbq chicken salad off the gluten free menu and reminded the waitress that I needed to make certain it was gluten free that the bbq sauce is NOT gluten free!!! Of course I had eaten half of it by then and went home sick.

    On another occasion, I did have the gluten free pizza and yes, got sick. I didn’t know what made me sick since I ordered it gluten free but after reading this article, I’m sure it was contaminated.

    No more CPK for me.

  14. Went there the other night, server told us the gluten free pizza was pulled, that they had made several patrons sick.

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