Sam Roe's recent Chicago Tribune reporting on food labeling was a high point of media coverage for the gluten-free community in 2008, ending with the article "Whole Foods pulls 'gluten-free' products from shelves after Tribune story" (December 31, 2008).
Roe and his colleagues did something that was long overdue: They examined food labels and tested foods for compliance when it came to gluten and allergens, then brought their findings to public attention.
In the December 31 article, Roe reports that Whole Foods has pulled three "gluten-free" Wellshire Farms products off its shelves due to their gluten content and stated that it "will devise a strict definition of 'gluten-free' for products sold in its stores and begin monitoring the items so such problems don't recur." Whole Foods was initially reluctant to pull the products but did so after receiving at least 20 consumer complaints or inquiries, the article states. Wellshire Farms apparently stopped producing the products in June but continued to sell them to Whole Foods without changing the labels, reports Roe.
Louis Colameco, owner of New Jersey's Wellshire Farms, still seems have misplaced priorities.
Colameco said he was disappointed Whole Foods decided to pull the products. "But they're the customer," he said. "What are you going to say?"GFNYC notes that Wellshire Farms had questionable labeling practices well before the influential Tribune articles.
He said his firm has found a new batter supplier that can guarantee less than 20 ppm of gluten. The newly formulated products should be back on shelves in a couple of months, he said. And before distributing them, he said, Wellshire will conduct gluten tests throughout the production process.
Asked why he does not contact regulators and formally issue a recall for the three products, Colameco said the items do not violate any law and that a recall might suggest an admission of guilt, opening him to lawsuits.
The Wellshire Kids products aren't the only Wellshire items with gluten problems.
Colameco acknowledged that his firm markets products identical to the three Wellshire Kids items under a different brand name: Garrett County. This brand, he said, is not sold at Whole Foods but mostly at health-food stores nationwide.
The Gluten-Free Grocery, on Mannheim Road in Westchester, had carried the Garrett County "gluten-free" chicken and beef dogs. But owner Cindy Day Erwin said she pulled them in November after reading about the Tribune report on the Wellshire Kids brands.
"I would be doing a disservice to my customers to allow a product that has known gluten concerns" to be for sale, she said.
The Tribune recently purchased the Garrett County brand chicken bites, chicken dogs and beef dogs and had them tested at a University of Nebraska laboratory specializing in food allergens. The results showed gluten levels as high as 2,000 ppm.
Colameco said his firm stopped making the Garrett County brand products the same time it halted production of the Wellshire Kids items. He said he no longer had either brand in stock and did not know how much Garrett County product remained in stores.