It's bad when a company mislabels food as "gluten-free" when it isn't. It's even worse when, after being "caught," it continues to do so. And that seems to be the case with Wellshire Farms and, by association, Whole Foods Market.
In 2006, GFNYC shared a report about mislabeled Wellshire Farms Lemon Herb Turkey Breast bought at Whole Foods Columbus Circle. Now Sam Roe of The Chicago Tribune reports the mislabeling of Wellshire Kids' Dinosaur Shapes Chicken Bites (which, Roe writes, are marketed exclusively by Whole Foods) as well as Chicken Corn Dogs and Beef Corn Dogs, both marked as "gluten-free."
In the article "Children at risk in food roulette" (November 21, 2008), Roe writes
Take the example of Peggy Pridemore, a Kentucky woman who bought Wellshire Kids' Dinosaur Shapes Chicken Bites because her son Patrick has a severe wheat allergy. Bold letters on the packaging said the item was "gluten free," or contained no wheat, rye and barley proteins.GFNYC encourages you to spread the word and bring this matter to the attention of your local Whole Foods Market. And keep an eye on your legislators to ensure that labeling becomes more reliable and enforceable. Budget cuts could make the situation worse.
After Patrick, then 3, ate the nuggets in December, he started coughing, his eyes swelled and he had trouble breathing. His mom jabbed his leg with a large needle containing epinephrine, a drug to help him breathe, then raced him to the hospital, where he recovered in the emergency room.
Pridemore said she contacted both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the food manufacturer and that neither offered to test the chicken nuggets.
The Tribune recently bought the product on two occasions at a River Forest supermarket and sent the samples to one of the nation's leading food-allergy labs, at the University of Nebraska. Both times, the lab found gluten. The item remains on shelves across the U.S.
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Pridemore recalled how she bought Wellshire Kids' dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets, made by New Jersey-based Wellshire Farms, because the item specifically claimed to be gluten free. She also found the same claim on the Wellshire Farms Web site.
After her son had the severe reaction to the nuggets, she took some to his allergist, who ran tests, including gently rubbing a nugget on the boy's arm to see if it would cause a small welt. It did, and the allergist concluded the nuggets were to blame for his full-blown reaction.
Pridemore contacted the USDA, which sent agency investigator Michael Maxwell to her home just outside Cincinnati. He took photos of the package, but did not test the nuggets for undisclosed allergens.
The investigator also obtained a copy of a brief, unsigned in-plant inspection report, which found no problems with the nuggets. He later acknowledged to the Tribune he wasn't sure who wrote the report—another USDA inspector or a plant worker. The report said workers routinely sent the nuggets out to a lab for testing. The report stated that those lab results, from last fall, "were all negative for gluten."
In an e-mail in January, Maxwell indicated to Pridemore that in light of that inspection report and the fact that no other consumer had complained, no action would be taken. "You may want to have the product tested," he wrote, according to a copy of the e-mail exchange.
Pridemore said she was taken aback that the USDA suggested she test the food herself. But she sent the remainder of the nuggets in her freezer to the Nebraska lab.
The results showed high amounts of gluten. So she e-mailed a copy of the findings to the USDA and reminded Maxwell that the product advertises itself as gluten free.
The investigator wrote back that the government had "archived your complaint." The investigation went no further, according to Pridemore. She also e-mailed the test results to Wellshire Farms. The company, she said, never responded.
In May, several weeks after Maxwell told Pridemore her complaint was archived, a second child with a known wheat allergy—Timmy Osterhoudt, 5, of Lemoore, Calif.—had a severe reaction after eating the same product, his mother said.
"He said, 'Mommy, I don't want to die!'" Michelle Osterhoudt recalled. "I told him, 'Mommy won't let you die.' "
She jabbed him with the epinephrine needle and raced him to the military hospital on the base where the family lives. There, he recovered.
Like Pridemore, Osterhoudt sent the chicken bites to the Nebraska lab for testing. Again, the results showed high amounts of gluten. She said she complained to Wellshire Farms, USDA and FDA, but to no avail.
USDA spokeswoman Amanda Eamich said one reason it did not ask Wellshire Farms to recall the chicken bites is because the agency did not trust the consumers' testing results. The consumers had sent samples of chicken nuggets from opened packages, raising the possibility that the product was contaminated somewhere between their homes and the lab.
Pridemore said it was the USDA's job—not consumers—to test samples from unopened packages.
"I'm not a doctor. I'm not a scientist," she said. "I'm just a mom trying to keep her child safe."
The Tribune recently bought two samples of the chicken nuggets and sent them to the same Nebraska lab. Both tested positive for gluten—including a sample from an unopened box.
The nuggets, said Steve Taylor, the lab's director and a leading allergy expert, "are not safe for people with wheat allergies or celiac disease," often characterized by chronic abdominal pain.
The newspaper also tested two other Wellshire Kids' products: the "Gluten Free" Chicken Corn Dogs and the "Gluten Free" Beef Corn Dogs, finding high amounts of gluten in both.
Wellshire Farms owner Louis Colameco said his products are safe. But he said that in light of the two consumer complaints and recent moves by regulators to tighten "gluten-free" rules, he halted production of the three Wellshire Kids' products in June.
Colameco said he would start making the food again when he finds a supplier who can guarantee that the batter used in the products is gluten free. The old supplier, he said, could not give such an assurance.
He said he has not recalled the Wellshire Kids products still on store shelves because he believes they are in compliance with federal regulations.
But weak and murky federal rules on gluten leave food companies wiggle room and consumers at risk.
The USDA, which has jurisdiction over meat-based products such as chicken nuggets, said it has no policy specifically addressing "gluten-free" claims. The agency must approve labels before products go to market, and packaging claims are reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
The FDA's rules are tougher. Though the agency has no specific rule for "gluten-free" products, the agency's policy generally is that absent a standard, products claiming to be "free" of an ingredient cannot contain it.
Recognizing that food companies may interpret these rules as they wish, the FDA has pushed a proposed rule that products advertised as "gluten-free" must contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten. A UN health panel this summer recommended a similar standard. Tribune tests of Wellshire products all far exceeded those levels.
Apart from online sales, the Wellshire Kids' gluten-free products are sold exclusively at Whole Foods Market, the upscale chain..
Whole Foods said it was investigating the issue, but that it was the supplier's responsibility, not Whole Foods', to ensure the Wellshire products are safe and legal.