Trying to figure out what products are really gluten-free can be a shopping headache. Canada’s newly enhanced allergen and gluten labelling  rules, coming into effect next year, will certainly help, but there will still be fine print and confusing “may contain” statements to navigate.
Now the Canadian Celiac Association is trying to make its mark with a big new gluten-free certification program, which would enable celiac or gluten sensitive consumers to simply look for the new CCA gluten-free symbol, plunk a food package into the shopping cart and head off to the next aisle.
“Let’s face it, people get frustrated with having to read labels and look for ingredients,” says Jim McCarthy, the CCA’s executive director. “If this mark says this is safe, then I can just pick it up to eat and that’s fine.” Under the CCA program, everyone from the multinational to the small cookie maker can enroll for a fee to go through the rigorous qualifying program – with plant testing and annual third-party audits – to prove their gluten-free worthiness.
Reaching critical mass for the number of products bearing the CCA seal will be essential to success. Paul Valder, a consultant working with the CCA on the certification launch, reports strong interest from major multinational brands and also among grocery chains with private brand gluten-free products. “One multinational is asking us: ‘Can we get it to market in eight weeks, 10 weeks?’ So there is that kind of urgency,” he says.
But there is one hurdle to getting CCA-sanctioned products to market: the definition of the term “gluten-free”. You might think that was zero gluten, but zero is difficult to achieve 24/7 in food processing, given the ubiquity of gluten. It used to be that scientists could only test to 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten, and since no health risks to persons with celiac have been found to date at or below that threshold level, under 20 ppm became the safe level in Canada, Europe and other parts of the world.
Or is it the safe level in Canada? At a CCA strategy session on the certification program in late March, some manufacturers were astounded to learn that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is now interpreting regulations to mean that zero ppm is now the definition of gluten-free. (New gluten food tests can now detect gluten down to the 3 to 5 ppm range). CFIA acknowledges this is the case, while a senior spokesman for Health Canada confirmed to Allergic Living that “from a health and safety perspective, we’re happy with a 20 ppm cutoff.” Confused yet? The manufacturers at the March meeting sure were.
“It’s concerning that Health Canada and CFIA aren’t of the same mind on this,” says Daniel Mattimoe, the senior manager of quality and regulatory affairs at Campbell of Canada. While Campbell’s has stringent gluten-free and tests to undetectable levels, he notes that for a smaller company, a surprise test reading of 7 ppm could now trigger a technical recall.
“You’re putting that company in a bind,” he says. “Food safety is No. 1, you don’t argue with that. But that’s the concern at 20 ppm. Below that, it becomes a regulatory issue and the right thing is to do is what CFIA tells you to do. But that could be financially devastating.”
Fortunately, Health Canada and CFIA both told Allergic Living they are trying to resolve their differences. McCarthy and the CCA are certainly pressing them to do so both in fairness to the food makers, and for the consumers. Those folks who will be out on a certified buying binge once all those “official” gluten-free products start hitting the shelves.
From the Summer 2011 issue of Allergic Living magazine.