Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Will the strictest gluten-free standards in the world roll back?

Last week The Hill reported that the FDA's long-awaited (and long overdue) gluten-free labeling standard had headed to the White House's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. In theory, this will be the standard's last stop before it becomes official. The end might possibly be in sight.

(That said, it may still be months away. According to The Hill, there are 143 rules and proposals in the queue, and 84 of them are already over the White House's 90-day review limit. Other sources, including Jane Anderson at About.com's Celiac Disease & Gluten Sensitivity page, suggest the FDA rule may get fast tracked.)

The U.S.'s likely gluten-free standard has many similarities to the Codex Alimentarius standards prevalent throughout Europe, as well as the GF standard in Canada. Common to them all is the 20 ppm threshold for establishing gluten-free status.

But with the FDA's proposed gluten-free labeling standard once again in the news, members of the gluten-free community have again showed a diversity of opinion on the issue. Some express joy and satisfaction that the standard will finally become official, and that the U.S. will at last deliver on its promise to establish a standard and catch up to the more progressive European and Canadian countries that have had a standard for years. Others, however, have expressed sharp disapproval of the proposed standard, principally stating that the 20 ppm threshold is too lenient, that the law does not go far enough and is not strict enough.

When such criticisms surface, they almost inevitably do so with reference to Australia and New Zealand, which currently have the strictest gluten-free labeling laws on the planet.

Australia and New Zealand's Gluten-Free Standard

Food Standards Australia New Zealand, a bi-national government agency, administers those countries' gluten-free labeling law. As noted by Coeliac Australia, in order for a food to be labeled gluten-free it must contain a) no detectable gluten, and b) no oats or malted gluten-containing cereal grains (because of unreliable test methods for determining gluten content in those foods). It also includes an additional caveat: that certain foods derived from gluten-containing source ingredients are so highly processed that they are rendered gluten-free and permissible. The result is a product's gluten-free label overrides its ingredient listing.

The crucial thing to note here, though, is the "no detectable gluten" limit, because it's the key to Australia and New Zealand's strict standard. Unlike other countries that set a specific threshold (most commonly 20 ppm), Australia and New Zealand's "no detectable gluten" limit is dependent on the best available testing technology. As analytical methods improve, and as gluten detection limits get lower and lower, the gluten-free labeling standard gets stricter and stricter. Currently, 3 ppm is the threshold for gluten-free status (it was 5 ppm when the standard first took effect).

And how is the standard working? According to a 2010 report from the New South Wales Food Authority, quite well. They purchased a broad range of 222 products labeled gluten-free from supermarkets across Sydney. 95% of those samples contained no detectable gluten, less than 3 ppm. However, 8 samples (just under 4%) contained between 3 and 20 ppm, meaning they would have earned gluten-free status in other countries, but not in Australia and New Zealand.

Changes Coming to the World's Strictest Standard?

But as Australian Food News reported last year, changes may be coming to the world's strictest gluten-free labeling standard. Those who hold up Australia and New Zealand as a model to follow may need to find a new example. Those countries are considering rolling back their gluten-free labeling law to match the 20 ppm standard accepted elsewhere around the world. And it's those countries' gluten-free community—including Coeliac Australia—that are leading the push.

Why? Coeliac Australia's official testimony for Australia's National Food Plan holds the answers. First, they agree with others' assessment that 20 ppm is a safe threshold below which those with celiac disease and other forms of gluten intolerance won't have a reaction. Second, they note that as testing methods continue to improve, the standard will get even more strict, possibly to 1 ppm or lower; this could effectively reduce the number of products that qualify for gluten-free status to near zero. And thirdly, they maintain that the challenge of meeting this standard (including more expensive testing, sourcing ingredients, manufacturing protocols) places a substantial and unnecessary burden on the food industry.

Will Australia and New Zealand actually roll back the standard? Time will tell.

Back in the United States, those that maintain that "gluten-free" should mean "zero gluten" will likely see this as a disappointing development. Others may see this as an encouraging sign of growing world consensus. (Remember, Europe's Codex standard once included a 200 ppm standard, which it tightened to 20 ppm.) As the U.S. enters the potential final end stage of its long road to a gluten-free labeling law, it's some good (gluten-free) food for thought.

–Pete

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