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”.
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.