Gluten Free by Christmas

The Food and Drug Administration has re-opened the comment period regarding its long-awaited regulations for gluten-free foods. Creating a “uniform and enforceable definition” of gluten free has been a long process. The FDA first proposed regulating the term back in 2007.

With this latest move, it appears as if American consumers could very well find out what the official standard will be by the end of this year.

“Before finalizing our gluten-free definition, we want up-to-date input from affected consumers, the food industry, and others to help assure that the label strikes the right balance,” said Michael Taylor, the agency’s deputy commissioner for foods, in a statement.

In crafting a standard, the FDA must strike a balance between protecting consumers while at the same time giving manufacturers enough room so that they can make a variety of gluten-free foods. Most modern testing methods can’t reliably detect anything below 20 parts per million, and that’s the number that’s already being used successfully in Europe and elsewhere.

Indeed, 20 ppm was the standard adopted by the Codex Alimentarius Commission back in 2008, which in turn impacted regulations in the 27 countries that make up the Commission of European Communities. The FDA, in deciding what Americans should be subject to, must take into account the tremendous amount of food imports we buy. 20 ppm seems a logical number.

The gluten-free market is worth almost $3 billion, and research firm Packaged Facts projects sales topping $5.5 billion by 2015. The number of confirmed gluten-intolerant individuals has inched up at a much slower pace, yet demand continues to grow — mostly from consumers who self-diagnose or simply feel better eliminating gluten from their diet.

The FDA regulation isn’t a marketing term, but it will make gluten-free products stand out more on the shelf, and easier for shoppers to spot. It will also permit better enforcement by authorities, though this might not be necessary. Many products have already been certified by the nonprofit Gluten-Free Certification Organization — which mandates a 10 ppm threshold. The same limit is part of a new certification track introduced in June by certifier Quality Assurance International and the nonprofit National Foundation for Celiac Awareness.