Since I wrote a column focusing on the increasing ubiquity and success of private food labeling in June, a series of important federal food labeling issues have made headlines. Not surprisingly, the government’s actions are mostly rife with drawbacks.
Just this month, the FDA published a final rule on gluten-free labeling. People with celiac disease must avoid gluten. For a variety of reasons, many others choose to avoid it.
Food academic Marion Nestle, who posted a useful timeline of the FDA’s gluten-free saga at her website, says the fact it took the agency “nine years getting to this point” is an “[i]mpressive” feat.
Unlike Nestle, I’m not so sure this decade of deliberation is any cause for celebration. Others agree. The label rule is already drawing fire.
In an article headlined “Will an Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Rule Make People Sick?”, attorney Seth Mailhot wonders whether the FDA has crafted a final rule that might harm the very people it was intended to help.
“One of the key complaints among the celiac disease community with the 20 ppm standard,” the maximum parts per million of gluten that a product labeled “gluten free” may contain under the rules the FDA established this week, Mailhot writes, “is that even at this threshold, the amount of gluten adds up quickly.”
And that means products labeled as “gluten free” under the new rules can still sicken people with celiac disease.
What this likely means is that the label will serve as a gold standard for people who choose not to eat gluten, but will be a relatively worthless tool for those who mustn’t consume gluten.
What this definitely means is that whatever “gluten free” labels meant prior to the rule, they no longer mean “gluten free” thanks to the FDA’s careful and lengthy deliberation.
There is a small upside to the FDA's final rule. I suspect the market that caters to those with celiac disease will react to this either by listing gluten ppm on packaging (which some products already do) or by encouraging more companies to undergo their private certification process—a non-governmental solution to labeling that I applauded as recently as my aforementioned June column—in order to earn a more meaningful gluten-free seal.
Unlike gluten-free labeling, another recent development in federal oversight over food labeling doesn't require any search for a silver lining. The USDA recently approved the use of a voluntary “non-GMO” label on meats that were raised on a GMO-free diet.
Under existing USDA policy, reported the Chicago Tribune’s Monica Eng, “U.S. meat producers were not allowed to use such claims, even if their accuracy had been certified by a third party.”
The earlier approach by the USDA was ridiculous. I welcome the change. The FDA, which often barred makers of GMO-free foods from touting their products as such—for which I had long blasted the agency—also appears to have reversed course. Bravo on both counts.
The third and final recent federal labeling issue concerns several lawsuits over the meaning of the term “natural,” which the FDA doesn’t define currently. A slew of cases have asked courts to penalize food manufacturers who employ the term.
For example, in one ongoing case, a plaintiff sued Chobani, the maker of a popular Greek yogurt, claiming in part that the maker’s yogurt products were mislabeled because they state the yogurt is “all natural” even though it contains coloring made from fruits and vegetables.