After nearly a decade of delays, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Friday finally issued rules defining what “gluten-free” means for the purposes of food labeling. That means that within one year, consumers — especially those suffering from conditions that don’t allow them to eat gluten — can rest assured that any foods on grocery store shelves that claim to be gluten-free will meet a standardized, national definition.
Americans have increasingly turned to gluten-free products in the last decade. In 2012, an estimated 25 percent of Americans ate gluten-free products and 69 percent of Americans experimented with gluten-free food. That’s on top of the approximately three million Americans who have celiac disease, a hereditary health condition that prevents them from processing gluten. People with celiac disease who accidentally ingest high amounts of the protein can suffer serious health consequences, including osteoporosis, infertility, and even intestinal cancer.
Up until now, those Americans have had to take producers’ word for it when it comes to their gluten-free products. In an interview with USA Today, Andrea Levario of the American Celiac Disease Alliance explained, “[I]f I pick up a product and it says ‘gluten-free’ I don’t know what that means because there’s no federal standard.” That’s particularly concerning for people like Levario, whose son has celiac disease.
The new rules specify that a food may only be labeled gluten-free if it contains fewer than 20 parts per million of gluten.
Congress originally passed the law requiring the labeling of gluten-free food in 2004. The FDA didn’t get around to proposing its standards for labeling requirements until 2007. Lawmakers had originally set a deadline of 2008 for instituting the new labeling rules.
The FDA often takes years to institute regulations — even ones that have a direct and significant public health interest. The agency is usually held back from enforcing safety rules by mandatory public commenting periods, bureaucratic setbacks, lawsuits from food producers and supermarkets, and corporate lobbying aimed at members of Congress who may then threaten the FDA with budget cuts.