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Retailers, beware of gluten-free claims

Why you should be concerned

Gluten-free” appears to have taken over the grocery aisles. Customers are demanding gluten-free foods and buyers are swamped with brands flogging their “delicious” wares.

There is reason for retailers to be concerned about the reliability of gluten-free claims. In conversations with food processors and brand owners who market their products as gluten-free, it is clear that many do not understand the complexities of manufacturing such products in compliance with Health Canada regulations. An incorrect and dangerous assumption that is commonly made is that products without wheat are gluten-free. That puts food retailers and their customers at risk.

What departments are affected?

It is pretty widespread. Beyond baked goods, the problem impacts HMR, meat, deli, frozen and dry grocery - pasta, condiments, spices, seasonings, vinegar, baking, cereal, sauces and even soy sauce - dietary supplements, OTC and prescription drugs.

The Regulations

“Gluten-free” is not a marketing term, it is a claim regulated by Health Canada. Gluten-free foods are classified as “Foods for Special Dietary Use”. Section B.24.018. of the Food and Drug Regulations states “It is prohibited to label, package, sell or advertise a food in a manner likely to create an impression that it is a gluten-free food if the food contains any gluten protein or modified gluten protein...”. Foods labelled as gluten-free must have less than 20 ppm (parts per million), which is a tiny amount of gluten.

Although Health Canada is reviewing their position, currently products containing oats, even when made with “pure uncontaminated oats”, do not qualify as gluten-free in Canada. However, FDA regulations in the U.S. do permit oats. This has caused some confusion among manufacturers. Therefore, watch out for American brands containing oats.

How does gluten get into “gluten-free” foods?

Gluten sources are barley, oats, rye, triticale, wheat, kamut, spelt and gluten proteins derived from them. They may be added intentionally or through cross-contamination from the field to the fork. Major risk areas include contaminated raw ingredients, manufacturing facilities, inadequate packaging and at store level. Also, common ingredients used in food processing, such as additives, seasonings and sauces, can be hidden sources of gluten.

What are the risks for retailers?

Packaged food recalls for false gluten-free claims are on the rise. The CFIA routinely tests products. If a gluten-free food is found to contain 20 or more ppm of gluten, it is considered to be a food safety risk and will likely trigger a recall.

Another risk is making customers ill and losing their trust. No one needs bad publicity, especially with the speed at which it travels through social media.

How do retailers know which brands to trust?

There is a plethora of "gluten-free" symbols in the market. Many are self-declarations; in other words, the brand owner made it up. Manufacturers will tell you their products are tested for gluten, however tests are not reliable.

Having a HACCP-based certification program in the manufacturing facility is the best way to manage gluten and minimize risk. Stringent processes are put in place to prevent the cross-contamination of ingredients with gluten. Facilities are audited annually by independent third party auditors, ensuring compliance with the standards.

The Gluten-Free Certification Program (GFCP) is the only Canadian certification for gluten-free. Endorsed by the Canadian Celiac Association, it is based on Health Canada regulations. Retailers and consumers can rest assured that products from facilities certified under the program are safe, reliable and gluten-free. Loblaw, Sobeys and Walmart Canada have chosen the GFCP as the only certification and trademark to ensure the safety of their own-brand gluten-free products.

To accommodate manufacturers who are certified under one of the GFSI standards such as BRC, SQF or FSSC 22000, the Gluten-Free Certification Program annual audit may be combined with the food safety audit.

When making listing decisions, buyers should ask suppliers for the current GFCP facility audit certificate and look for the trademark on packaging.

Selling products bearing the GFCP trademark improves the customer’s shopping experience by making it easier to identify safe gluten-free foods. It also sends a message that retailers care about the health and wellness of their customers.

Birgit Blain is president of Birgit Blain & Associates, a packaged foods consultancy specializing in strategy, brand and packaging development. She spent 17 years with Loblaw and President's Choice.

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