FDA Gives Meaning to “Gluten Free” Claim

With the August 2 publication of the FDA’s final gluten-free (GF) labeling rules, natural food, supplement, and in certain cases, beer producers now have standardized means for promoting gluten-free foods to their customers in a voluntary, verifiable, and consistent manner. Considering that “gluten-free” health claims accompanied more than 11% of all new specialty food products released in 2012, a 2.6% increase from the year before, the FDA’s decision serves a readily expanding market.

Understanding the Law and Implementation The guidelines establish a maximum threshold for gluten content in gluten-free foods as 20 parts per million (ppm) (200mg/kg), which is consistent with international standards defined in the UN’s Codex Alimentarius and determined by FDA to be the scientifically most reliable minimum measurement for gluten content currently available. However, because of the voluntary nature of reporting (manufacturers are not required to label products as gluten-free), as well as no official FDA standardized certification scheme or stamp (a lá USDA Organic), the onus of verification and accountability to consumers ultimately falls on producers.

The ruling took effect on Sept. 4, 2013, but any company looking to update its packaging or any other marketing materials has until Aug. 5, 2014, to comply.

Industry Implications First and foremost the new rule is meant to benefit consumers avoiding gluten out of medical necessity, for whom the risks of consumption range from gastric discomfort to osteoporosis and intestinal cancer. However, according to Laura Kuykendall, Director of Marketing for Glutino, a gluten-free manufacturer founded in 1983, consumers adopting a gluten-free lifestyle are clearly increasing. As a result, Glutino has embraced the use of third party GF certification. “Transparency about process and providing information to consumers is the most important factor" when dealing with medically sensitive consumers, Kuykendall explained.

Jeanne Cloutier, Director of Operations at Alter Eco, an importer and producer of Fair Trade foods, explained that because of the nature of gluten allergies, GF consumers are extremely well educated on manufacturing processes and regulatory issues, “much more than most people are with, say, the USDA Organic standard.” Currently, both companies certify with GFCO, the largest GF certifier operating in the United States.

Depending on how a company plans, implementation costs can be kept to a minimum. Alter Eco waited until its labels required several changes before printing updated packaging. And while costs vary, regular, high caliber testing doesn’t need to be expensive. Ultimately, both women conclude, for gluten-free consumers, your brand is only as good as your reputation. "It’s a trust thing,” says Cloutier, “but somebody needs to validate that logo."

-- Sam Kressler