By MICHELE F. MIHALJEVICH
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) ruling on gluten-free labeling is good news for people who shouldn’t consume gluten, according to representatives of wheat and milling organizations.
For a food item to be labeled “gluten-free,” it must contain fewer than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten, the FDA announced earlier this month. In addition, the product must not contain wheat, rye, barley or crossbreds of these grains, or ingredients from these prohibited grains that have not been processed to remove gluten.
“We’re thrilled they finally announced this ruling,” said Judi Adams, president of the Wheat Foods Council. “It will be much easier for those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. They won’t have to read the labels. They can just buy it.”
The FDA was required to define the term gluten-free to comply with the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004. Manufacturers will have a year to bring their labels in line with the new definition, announced by the FDA on Aug. 2.
“We encourage the food industry to come into compliance with the new definition as soon as possible and to help us make it as easy as possible for people with celiac disease to identify foods that meet the federal definition of gluten-free,” Michael R. Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, said.
Gluten refers to proteins that occur naturally in the prohibited grains or crossbred hybrids of these grains, the FDA stated. People with celiac disease or sensitivity to gluten are usually urged to avoid consuming products containing it. Almost three million Americans have celiac disease, an autoimmune digestive condition, the FDA added.
The North American Millers’ Assoc. (NAMA) supports the FDA’s ruling and is pleased oats were not included in the list of prohibited grains.
“The definition is important for consumers’ understanding and industry usage of the term gluten-free,” the association said in a statement. “Gluten-free diets are critical for people with celiac disease and gluten intolerance. They are also helpful to those with allergies to wheat.”
In not placing oats on the list, the FDA considered their nutritional contribution to the diets of those with celiac disease, NAMA noted. “Oat producers who take the necessary steps to limit the gluten content of oat-containing products now have a mechanism to communicate that benefit to consumers.”
Canada and European nations already limit the amount of gluten in foods labeled gluten-free to 20 ppm, Adams noted. Research has found a majority of people with celiac disease who have been gluten-free long enough can tolerate that amount of gluten in their diet, she added.
The membership of the Wheat Foods Council includes wheat producers and food manufacturers. “For the wheat producers, this probably doesn’t affect them one way or the other,” Adams explained. “People with celiac disease won’t be eating wheat anyway.”
Previous versions of the gluten-free labeling proposal said foods that are inherently gluten-free, such as oranges and applesauce, could not have a label touting they are free of gluten. The final version will allow such a label.
Adams doesn’t know why that part of the proposal was changed. “It’s misleading,” she said. “It gives credence to the idea that all gluten is bad. But it’s only something bad for a small number of people.”
In its announcement, the FDA said officials changed their minds on the labeling of inherently gluten-free foods after receiving comments from the public, including those with celiac disease.
“We conclude that a gluten-free claim, without qualifying language, on a food that is inherently free of gluten, is not misleading,” the FDA said. “This final rule will allow us to determine whether specific gluten-free labeling claims are misleading on a case-by-case basis. The approach we have taken in the final rule should result in labeling that is easier for consumers to understand.”