Thursday, February 5, 2009

A False Sense of Security

Here's an admission: those of us in the Celiac/gluten-free community can, at times, be a paranoid group. We worry (obsessively) about gluten contamination in our food, usually because we've had an experience (or several) that has shaken our confidence in what we can eat where. Regaining that confidence is a difficult process - it can take time, if it happens at all.

It's not a bad thing to be cautious. It is what keeps us healthy in what otherwise might be unsafe situations for eating. As awareness about gluten continues to grow, and products and restaurants are more clearly labeling what is and isn't in their food, it has become easier to safely negotiate the gauntlet of gastronomy, and to perhaps even regain some of that confidence lost.

But I've recently discovered that sometimes, a little information about gluten is more dangerous than none at all. Here's the story:

Back in late October, I blogged about Boar's Head meats and cheeses, which are gluten-free. Not to worry...they remain gluten-free, but read on, for this is a cautionary tale. About one month ago, I got sick twice within two days, both very much in line with how my body responds to gluten cross-contamination. I was initially puzzled, since we have a gluten-free kitchen. The only common denominator between the two meals was one thing: Boar's Head Black Forest Ham. Funny, since it's gluten-free.

I went back to the source of my ham: the deli counter at my local King Soopers supermarket, which is part of the Kroger family of stores. Over the course of the last year, the supermarket completed a full renovation, including the deli counter, which now serves only meats and cheeses cut fresh to order. And they only serve two brands: Boar's Head, and Private Selection, which is Kroger's in-house brand.

The deli counter proudly displays a sign heralding the gluten-free status of Boar's Head. But what if the Private Selection meats weren't gluten-free? They're cut on the same slicers as the Boar's Head, and could easily cross-contaminate. This is a perfect example of a time where a little information about gluten is worse than none at all. Whereas I might otherwise have steered away from deli meats for fear of gluten, the sign at the deli gave me a false sense of security that, yes, I could safely order and eat the meat.

Of course, this is all predicated on gluten in the Private Selection meats in the first place. So, I followed the trail farther up the food chain and contacted Kroger customer service. Getting a definitive answer has thusfar proven elusive. The company sent me a PDF document of all Kroger-brand (including Private Selection meats from the deli) products that are in theory gluten-free. Yet, in the very same document, they also state that they don't guarantee that any of their deli meats or cheeses are gluten-free. What's more, in the wake of my initial communication with Kroger, my local King Soopers added a new sign to the deli counter, proclaiming "no gluten" in the Private Selection meats and cheeses.

Is your head spinning yet? Because mine sure is. My "case" has now been referred to the manager of my local King Soopers, who I have yet to hear from. In the meantime, I'm left with a questionable situation with regards to my deli meats and cheeses. And even if the Private Selection meats and cheeses turn out to be gluten-free, the Kroger parent company still says you risk cross-contamination from other parts of the deli counter. But if that's true, isn't it disingenuous to promote gluten-free meats and cheeses that you can't guarantee are gluten-free? And what would the folks at Boar's Head think about this?

I'm not suggesting any deliberate mal-intent on the part of King Soopers and Krogers. But I am suggesting that a little gluten awareness mixed with a little gluten ignorance is a dangerous combination. My sense of security has faltered. And paranoia returns (to a degree).

- Pete


Gluten Free Steve said...

King Sooper's horrible when it comes to gluten free items and confirming if their items are safe. That's why I fully support Safeway, who has a huge list of their private label items that are gluten free.

peterbronski said...

I'll have to give Safeway another shot, Steve! We used to shop there when we lived elsewhere in town, but now King Soopers is just a mile from our house, and we've shopped there lots.

I think the worst thing I've seen there was when they had an entire shelf of whole wheat pasta labeled as gluten-free. I informed the guy behind the customer service counter, and he literally ran across the store to pull down the GF labeling. =)

Cheers, Pete

GFE--gluten free easily said...

I was intrigued by your title, Pete, because I believe there are too many ways we get a false sense of security. Excellent post. I don't use luncheon meat often, but my husband does and although he's not GF, I like to know what we have is GF in case I want some. What I've been doing because of the same concerns is just getting luncheon meat that comes in a tub that's GF. I use Hillshire Farms Deli Selects. (It's my understanding that everything except for their beer bratwurst is GF.) There's also no mention of anything with wheat being processed in their facilities and I've never had an issue. Not as much fun as buying a pound of deli meat here and there, but it works for me. I will be interested to hear the response you finally get. Thanks for sharing this, Pete. ANY cross contamination or glutening of any kind is no fun.


Absolutely Not Martha said...

yes! I had similar situation at a local coffeehouse (not a gf establishment) which labeled several items including muffins and bread as gluten free. Yet no measures were taken to eliminate cross-contamination (e.g. one toaster and sandwich prep area for all sandwiches). They seemed rather puzzled and perturbed when I questioned their authority to mark so many items in window display as gluten free. Some people think that as long as the ingredients are gluten free, then the item must be gluten free. It's obvious that many restaurants want to provide gluten free options on their menus to widen their customer base. They just haven't done their homework yet.

Amanda on Maui said...

I buy the prepackaged Boar's Head meats. I really only get their pepperoni and salami.

peterbronski said...

Call me a deli meat snob, but I've never enjoyed the prepackaged deli meats as much as when it's cut fresh to order. Now if there was just a way to guarantee no cross-contamination when that happens...

Cheers, Pete