From August 5, 2014, manufacturers using the term ‘gluten-free’ on food labels must adhere to new FDA rules that set a gluten limit of 20 parts per million (ppm). But can consumers take their word for it, or will they still look for some kind of third party stamp for added reassurance?
Judging by the recent surge in inquiries from food manufacturers about NSF International’s Gluten-Free Certification Program - which is consistent with the FDA regulation - the answer to the latter question is yes, says Jaclyn Bowen, general manager of NSF International Agriculture and QAI (Quality Assurance International).
“You can go ahead and label your products 'gluten-free' if your products test below 20ppm, but what the third party gluten-free certification stamp shows is that you have the right systems - the good manufacturing practices - in place to consistently stay below 20ppm.
“The stamp is about transparency and trust. It says to consumers and retailers that your claims have been verified by a third party through inspections and product testing.
“We’ve seen a huge increase in the numbers of companies that want to get certified over the past month or so since the rule came out.”
We select random samples from production lines and warehouses and send them to our labs for independent testing
While the NSF gluten-free standard and certification program - launched in 2011 - is relatively new to the market, it's growing fast, and is unique in that it involves annual inspections, ingredient verification, on-site audits and random product testing, claimed Bowen.
“We conduct a physical audit of your facilities to ensure you have the systems in place - including staff training schemes - to ensure your manufacturing process prevents gluten contamination.
“But what makes us unusual is that we also select random samples from production lines and warehouses and send them to our labs for independent testing. We don’t just rely on the manufacturers’ test results.”
She added: “We also buy finished products and test those to ensure that what’s on shelf is gluten-free. While we haven’t been doing gluten-free certifications for as long as some other companies, we have been doing food safety audits for decades, and the caliber of our auditors is higher.”
We tell people to shoot for 10ppm or less
As for which tests should be used for gluten-testing to ensure compliance with the FDA regulation, the agency has identified two ELISA-based methods (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay) that will be used in tandem, she said.
“Additional guidance from the FDA is still forthcoming on the proper test approach for fermented and hydrolyzed foods.”
The 20 ppm level is a reflection of reliable detection limits in the commercial market today, said Bowen, although she acknowledged that for some celiacs, any amount of gluten is too much.
"We tell people to shoot for 10ppm or less."