Most consumers understand that “lite” or “low in carbs” on food packaging labels are marketing descriptions, nothing more. But the label “gluten free” is a promise that is critical for the health of about three million Americans who can get ill if they eat the proteins that occur naturally in wheat, barley or other related grains.
For consumers who are sensitive to gluten, there is good news from the Food and Drug Administration. The agency earlier this month announced a single, uniform standard for gluten-free foods. It has taken the agency almost seven years to come up with a limit of 20 parts of gluten per million in products sold as “gluten free,” a level similar to what is required in Canada and the European Union. Food companies have until August 2014 to comply. It is not clear why it has taken the F.D.A. so long to issue this standard, but given that the issue has been considered for years, food packagers should be able to comply quickly. Since 2006, federal law has required that manufacturers of most packaged foods made in the United States inform consumers if their products contain any of the eight foods that account for 90 percent of all food allergies. These major food allergens are milk, egg, fish, shellfish, nuts, wheat, peanuts and soybeans.
Representative Nita Lowey of New York, who has been working on food-allergy issues in Congress since 1999, calls the standard “a great victory” for millions of consumers who need to be certain that the food they buy is really gluten free.
Protecting people for allergens that can send them to the emergency room is a difficult business. Proper labeling can only help.”