Saturday, December 20, 2008

Chicago Tribune Exposes Poor Labeling

Sam Roe and Ted Gregory's article "Tribune investigation prompts stores to pull food items" (December 20, 2008) is the latest in the Chicago Tribune's look at labeling practices.

Says the article: "In one of the nation's largest examinations of undisclosed ingredients in food, the Tribune reviewed thousands of items at more than 60 locations, finding dozens of products obviously mislabeled. The newspaper also conducted 50 laboratory tests—more than the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration combined over the last several years—to try to determine precise ingredients."

Can you believe how little testing the USDA and FDA do?

Many of the cases in the article have to do with milk, but there are some items of special interest to those on wheat-free or gluten-free diets. Perhaps the most important is the finding that "Oats are often tainted with wheat." This is well-known in wheat-free and gluten-free circles, but research supporting the claim only surfaces sporadically. And the article draws attention to one of the big flaws of current labeling regulations: The cross-contamination of wheat with oats is not something that must be disclosed, no matter how substantial it might be.
The Tribune tested six brands of oat cereal, and all had hidden gluten, most likely traces of wheat....

By law, labels need to disclose only ingredients in the product's formulation. Substances that might slip in through cross-contamination do not have to be declared, though more and more companies are putting such warnings on labels.

Tricia Thompson, author of "The Gluten-Free Nutrition Guide," said many people suffering from celiac disease, which can cause stomach cramps, know to avoid oats. But oat products, she said, should warn that they might contain wheat.

None of the six oatmeal products tested by the Tribune clearly warned consumers about the possibility of wheat, a major allergen.

But after the Tribune informed New York based-HappyFamily that its HappyBellies Oatmeal Cereal contained gluten, chief operating officer Jessica Rolph said she would relabel the product.

She added that consumers have been asking her company whether the cereal contains wheat. "Parents are definitely concerned about this," Rolph said.

The oats that tested highest for gluten in the Tribune examination were made by the Quaker Oats Co. Spokeswoman Candace Mueller said Quaker is aware that cross-contamination can occur in its oats, but "we are confident that our labels are accurate and our products are safe."
Thanks a lot, Quaker Oats.

Some good news for New Yorkers: "New York state authorities test many imports for mislabeled food, but few other regulators do." However, the article goes on to say that "With few checks on foreign labels, many imports pose a significant risk to U.S. children with allergies" and offers this cautionary note: "'If I had a food allergy, I wouldn't eat imported foods,' said Dan Rice, director of the New York state food laboratory."

Now I'm curious to see the results of all 50 lab tests.

ADDENDUM (12/21/08) From an email on the international celiac disease mailing list, it seems that the findings for oats were as follows.
920 ppm Quaker Old Fashioned Rolled Oats
190 ppm Jewel (Albertson's) Old Fashioned Oats
160 ppm McCann's Imported Steel Cut Irish Oatmeal
130 ppm HappyBellies Baby Oatmeal Cereal
79 ppm Whole Foods 365 Organic Rolled Oats
36 ppm Country Choice Irish Style Oats
None of them would qualify as gluten-free according to the current international standard of 20ppm maximum.


Anonymous said...

thanks for getting the word out David. Scary stuff. Keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

Most people with Celiac Disease know to stay away from Wheat, rye, oats, barley and any combination therin. They also know to be aware of cross contamination. This is helpful information though and as a parent with celiac and two children that are gluten free I appreciate the article. Keep up the great work and the more information and awarness out there the better!