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How Soon Till Our Pantries Boast All the Right Labels?

June 10th, 2008 by Brooke

On Sunday, June 8, the Washington Post ran an article “Food Allergies Trigger Multibillion-Dollar Specialty Market” by Annys Shin discussing the new and widespread marketing aims of food corporations to cater to consumers with food sensitivities. The article states that according to research firm Mintel, by 2010, the gluten-free food and drink industry is expected to top out at $1.3 billion. If my own grocery cart is any indication, I am easily swayed by labels proclaiming “gluten-free” (and especially fickle around gluten-free baked goods).

Although the widespread acceptance and availability of foods for gluties, or people with gluten sensitivities, is on the rise, the federal government still does not require labeling for gluten ingredients. In 2004, president Bush signed the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 – FALCPA – requiring food allergen labeling to begin on January 1, 2006. The law identifies eight major foods – milk, eggs, fish, Crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans – but gluten is not among them.

Under the umbrella of that law, the FDA moved forward with a process that allows manufacturers to voluntarily label foods “gluten free .” In early 2007, there was much discussion of an FDA proposal to put into effect a much-needed, industry-wide gluten free standard by August 2008. Considering that is only three months away, I’m having trouble finding credible information about its debut. I called and emailed the FDA today to try to learn more. So far, no response. If anyone has any recent (c. 2008) information, please share. Under the proposal, all foods that are gluten free, naturally or otherwise, can be labeled as such. However, the oat and cross-contamination debate rages on.

A truly gluten-free label requires scrutiny of not just ingredients but also production methods because of cross-contamination. As the Post article explains, there are few federal regulations surrounding the existing food labeling – compliance and enforcement are hard to manage.

It will be interesting to see what comes in the next few months. On the plus side, while the FDA and the nation’s food giants are mulling this problem over, it does offer new, small and local producers an edge in the market because they can more easily adopt gluten friendly production methods. And, it serves as a reminder to all gluties that a gluten free diet based on fresh whole foods is always in style.

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