Wouldn’t having the food label “Celiac Safe” be the best? Sure.
Is it possible? Yes, but it all depends on what it means. At the moment, the phrase is used quite a lot without any definitive meaning. Celiacs tends to assume that other celiacs and gluten-free folks know what they mean and that assumption can have incredibly dangerous repercussions when it comes to reviewing a restaurant, for example.
Since the gluten-free community tends to be incredibly confused about labeling on gluten-free food products, I thought it best to figure out what “Celiac Safe” means and if it’s just a nice catch phrase used by bloggers and app creators or something that could be reality.
[READ THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO GLUTEN-FREE LABELING HERE.]
Why all the confusion?
The big question around gluten-free food labeling is when will the FDA finally decide what the rules are for companies to sport gluten-free labels. Since there are no agreed upon rules, we’re left trusting three different certifying bodies (who all have different processes and guidelines for what constitutes a product be gluten-free.
To make matters even more confusing, bloggers and some food companies regularly use the term “Celiac Safe” which garners absolutely no agreed upon definition. One spotting which irked me enough that I wrote the company was the use of it in a restaurant app from “Alex’s Gluten-Free”.
Users can rate the listed restaurants as “Celiac Friendly” or not (however I do believe that this was initially listed as “Celiac Safe” when I downloaded the app during it’s free launch phase months ago), but they provide no explanation as to the exact meaning of that term.
Their response to my email was that there should be no risk of cross contamination. Upon asking for further criteria, the end user must know eight different points about gluten-free food preparation such as knowing if “ALL staff knows and understands what Celiac Disease is, and why it is critical that they keep food prepared for those with CD separate from other food,” according to Charles Falls, President of DC Interactive.
Another point Charles references in their list is that the restaurant doesn’t “sift or use gluten-containing flours in kitchens where gluten-free food is prepared. Wheat flour can stay airborne for many hours and contaminate surfaces, utensils, and uncovered gluten-free food.” Frankly, this would likely be an issue at almost any restaurant that isn’t completely gluten-free.
So to accurately rank a restaurant based upon these points unwritten points seems like a burden the makers of the app aren’t entirely considering. At the end of the day, Charles shared that the simplistic “Yes” or “No” options for “Celiac Friendly” came down to space available on the screen.
Ultimately I have trouble trusting this rating system in “Alex’s Gluten-Free” app because the assumption that everyone knows what a term means which lacks a generally agreed upon definition is faulty and could lead to problems (like people getting glutened because someone who clicked “Yes” didn’t really know what to look for). So I began to ask around thinking that maybe I could come up with a definition that would encompass what everyone using the term is trying to convey.
[LEARN HOW I TEACH CLIENTS TO DINE OUT SAFELY HERE]
“Celiac Safe” means…
It turns out that defining a term like this isn’t going to be so easy. Some folks whom I contacted who use the term regularly said they’d need to get back to me after thinking about it for awhile. Several of the responses I did receive were confusing at best. Many of them sounded a lot like great concepts, but not rooted in the reality of how food production happens. A handful of them never got back to me and several others never even responded to my initial inquiry.
I turned to Michael Savett, the founder of Gluten-Free Philly, who replied, “I associate the term “celiac safe” as a food item that has been prepared in a completely gluten-free environment, with no gluten ingredients present in the manufacturing facility.”
Meanwhile, Beckee Moreland, the Director of Gluten-Free Industry Initiatives at National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA), states that the “NFCA isn’t in a position to comment on how consumers or food industry professionals are using this unregulated term. As food safety concerns have risen, customers with celiac disease are looking for assurance that the companies they support understand their needs and have processes in place to keep them safe. “Celiac safe” is a term that people frequently using to communicate that goal.”
Cynthia Kupper, RD who is the Executive Director of the Gluten Intolerance Group agrees, but warns that “this is a “coined” term [that] has no accepted definition used by some manufacturers as a way of identifying a food as safe for persons with celiac disease (and possibly avoiding having to follow any regulations – which there aren’t any at this point). I believe that when the FDA gluten-free labeling regulation passes, this term will not be allow or will have to meet the same regulations as the term gluten-free.”
So what I can gather about “Celiac Safe” products is that intelligent ingredient sourcing, manufacturing and production practices would be put in place wherein gluten could not sneak in. Testing would demonstrate that the products show the lowest possible limits of gluten contamination which ideally would be zero ppm. Thus a product could be considered ‘safe’ from start to finish.
For a restaurant to be “Celiac Safe, it would either have to be a dedicated gluten-free facility that also would be mindful of ingredient sourcing in addition to what food products would potentially be brought in or it would have to have a completely safe prep area with no risk of contamination along with keeping the gluten-free ingredients stored separately.
[LEARN MORE ABOUT HOW GLUTEN-FREE INGREDIENTS ARE SOURCED AND MANUFACTURED HERE]
The downside to “Celiac Safe”
It all sounds great to have “Celiac Safe” facilities and restaurants, but we’ve got some real life hiccups to address that throw a big wrench into things. That’s why its use of such a great concern to me. Because it’s used so much by so many people out there and yet completely unregulated, problems are bound to ensue.
Cynthia shares that “those who use this term may want to imply they use gluten-free ingredients but don’t want to test their products. (Just because the ingredients are gluten-free doesn’t mean that there is no contamination in the ingredients). Others may want to say they are meeting a standard that is lower than 20 ppm gluten. Anyone can define this term the way they want.”
And realistically, “if you are going to call this out on a menu or food product – TODAY – there is no regulation and not many consequences. Once there is a ruling in place, a company will need to assess their risk and liability based on processes, procedures for the items they want to identify as gluten-free,” adds Cynthia.
I’ve heard celiac advocates demand that “Celiac Safe” products should be tested to the lowest levels possible. But even if companies test their products, it’s impossible for products to test to zero ppm of gluten. There is no test that currently exists that can measure such a small amount of the proteins which trigger issues for celiacs and gluten sensitive individuals.
Beckee points out that “the food supply is problematic for those with celiac disease, largely because of label confusion, lack of regulations and inconsistent levels of knowledge among consumers, manufacturers, retailers and foodservice establishments. A naturally gluten-free product, for example, could have a risk of cross contamination in the facility or ingredients used, so it may not be “Celiac Safe.” In fact, a 2010 study found that some naturally gluten-free grains may be contaminated with gluten. That is why testing and certification can add that extra layer of assurance.”
“For restaurants, space can be the biggest prohibiting factor in developing gluten-free options that are safe for customers with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity. The ideal way to institute a gluten-free menu is to have dedicated storage and preparation areas, and many restaurants are already strapped for space. For manufacturers, the associated costs (i.e. to verify ingredients, clean equipment, institute a robust testing process) can be a prohibiting factor,”shares Beckee.
We’ve come along way in improving awareness about food allergies, celiac disease and food sensitivities. People are much more aware of this issue than they were just a few years ago, but that doesn’t mean that the journey is over. Vigilance is incredibly important as a consumer no matter whether purchasing products or a dinner out on the town.
“In the foodservice environment, there is still a great deal of education needed. We’ve come a long way in promoting availability and affordability of tested and verified gluten-free foods in grocery stores. Now, we need to extend that safety and accountability to restaurants and other foodservice establishments,” adds Beckee who suggests restaurants consider the NFCA’s GREAT Kitchens gluten-free training program to iron out the kinks.
In addition to the NFCA’s GREAT Kitchen program, there are multiple certifying bodies who can help companies put good manufacturing practice in place and insure safe products through appropriate testing.
But I implore you to be wary of anyone using the term “Celiac Safe” because it’s a catch phrase still in it’s infancy. When you see or hear it used, ask that person or company to clarify exactly what they mean rather than assuming you’re both on the same page. Otherwise, you could open yourself up to getting glutened by products or meals that sounded great on paper, but ended up a nightmare after the fact.
Thanks for sharing. I must admit that is why I prepare my own food, and eat nowhere else. There is simply no accountability held on those that use these words loosely/carelessly, and until that happens, I simply do not believe them; even the FDA.
I totally understand, Julia. This is a reality that some have had to face. I do think some cities are more GF or even celiac friendly in that you may find a 100% dedicated restaurant, but not everywhere. And this term, the more I dug created bigger and bigger problems.
Thanks for writing about our app, Alex’s Gluten Free Spots in this post. You wrote in various places that determining whether anything was Celiac Safe was next to impossible, and that those with Celiac Disease certainly cannot trust businesses whose messages are not regulated. Indeed, that is why we created the app.
It’s user generated content, not business generated. We don’t have ads.
So if a person with Celiac Disease says they had a good experience at a restaurant, I’d want to know about it. If I go there and my experience isn’t the same, I will certainly add my voice (in the form of ratings and comments) to that restaurant’s listing in the app just so others will know.
Without this communication between people with Celiac, we’re always at the mercy of the information put out there by businesses. Heck, that’s why your site is so great.
Please see our app as a good tool for GF and CD people to share their knowledge of those restaurants that serve them well.
Oh, and by the way: you are correct that we originally called the button “Celiac Safe” and changed it to “Celiac Friendly.” The reason for the change is exactly what you described — we did not want people to presume that if someone said a restaurant was “Celiac Safe,” it was indeed “safe.” That’s never the case. “Celiac Friendly” allows us and our users to differentiate a restaurant that treats those with Celiac Disease with respect and concern for their diet from those restaurants that really have no concern. Again, there’s no guarantee. But at least the experience of others with CD could be beneficial if you or your readers are searching for a Celiac Friendly restaurant.
Interesting. I actually have not heard the term “Celiac Safe” before. But it is certainly a dangerous term to be throwing around! Obviously its not regulated, and no one knows for sure at what level gluten IS actually safe (and its not simply “<20ppm"). Thanks for posting this article. I'll be looking for the term now.