Whether you’re one of the estimated three million Americans who truly suffer from celiac disease, or just one of the seemingly millions more who believe gluten is the culprit behind everything from your insomnia to your IBS—good news! The Food and Drug Administration has finally settled on a legal definition for “gluten-free.”
“Isn’t it obvious?” you ask, “Doesn’t ‘gluten-free’ mean, um, gluten-free?”
Oh, chickadee, that would be too simple, wouldn’t it? And when it comes to the long and tangled web that is the American food supply chain, everyone knows nothing is simple.
In this case, “gluten-free” (or “no gluten,” “free of gluten,” “without gluten,” or whatever label a food maker wants to slap on a product) means “almost 100 percent but not quite gluten-free.” In regulatory science-speak, in order for a food to qualify as “gluten-free,” it must contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten.
Why the (admittedly tiny) wiggle room? Because with the way most of our food is processed, there’s always a chance that some gluten-containing dust could be floating around the factory somewhere. The standard is similar to ones adopted by the European Union and Canada, and one most experts agree is safe for people who suffer from the autoimmune-based intolerance to gluten known as celiac disease.
Now for the fine print (happily magnified here for your viewing pleasure): The new labeling rule only applies to foods regulated by the FDA, not the USDA (generally meat, poultry and some eggs products), nor the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (so you may be chancing it on that gluten-free beer). It also does not apply to most food served in restaurants.
Manufacturers have a year to comply with the standards—which would take us to the ten-year anniversary of when Congress first directed the FDA to come up with a regulatory definition of “gluten-free,” way back in 2004.
Indeed, the FDA has been tossing around the idea of the 20 ppm standard for more than five years now; thus experts believe most FDA-regulated foods marketed as “gluten-free” today already meet the new rule.
“We frankly think that the great majority of products have been driven to that level,” one doctor who specializes in celiac disease tells The New York Times.
And that’s a good thing, because who knows how much time the FDA is actually going to be able to spend chasing down rogue food makers who are somehow sneaking gluten into their “gluten-free” products.
Like all federal agencies, the FDA is operating under what increasingly seems like the new-normal of austere sequestration, which lopped off more than $200 million from its budget during the last fiscal year, according to the Alliance for a Stronger FDA.
“The whole process is bad policymaking and, with specific regard to FDA, the consequences are an agency that can’t do all of its job,” writes Steven Grossman, the Alliance’s deputy executive director.
Thus, the FDA did not announce the formation of an elite team of superhero food inspectors known as the Gluten Squad.