Are gluten-free standards too strict for manufacturers?


Food Magazine recently caught up with Coeliac Australia and The Australian Food and Grocery Council to chat about potential amendments to the current gluten free standard.

According to Coeliac Australia, close to one percent of the Australian population has coeliac disease, and 28 percent of Australians follow a gluten-free diet to some extent.

The ever increasing demand for gluten-free products both within Australia and on an international level has paved the way for a highly lucrative market for manufacturers. According to international market research company, Markets and Markets, the gluten-free products market could represent a $US6,839.9 million market in the US alone by 2019.

However as gluten test measures become increasingly sophisticated and sensitive to the detection of gluten, this once lucrative space could soon become near impossible for manufacturers to play in.

Earlier this year the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) was approached by non-for-profit association, Coeliac Australia to consider an application to Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) to amend the current gluten-free standard.

Coeliac Australia is aiming to loosen the current FSANZ definition of what constitutes a gluten-free product to bring it in line with the standard set by the Codex Aliment Arius Commission, the international food standards body established by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation and World Health Organisation. Codex defines 20ppm of gluten as a safe level for gluten-free claims.

Manufacturers may be pushed out of the gluten-free space 

At present the current code as stipulated by FSANZ, (Issue 103, Standard 1.2.8 Clause 16) states that in order for a product to make a gluten-free claim, no detectable gluten may be present, and there must also be no oats or oat products. The main concern that Coeliac Australia has with the current definition is that as technology continues to improve, detectable trace levels for gluten will become more apparent and may push food manufacturers out of the gluten-free space altogether.

Coeliac Australia told Food magazine that the zero tolerance rule enforced by FSANZ limits food options for people with Coeliac Disease, and will inevitably become unworkable as testing methods become increasingly more sensitive.

“In the near future, new tests will be able to detect minute traces of gluten (at parts per billion) meaning that foods currently defined as gluten-free may disappear. This would be disastrous for people with Coeliac Disease who rely on safe gluten-free food as a medical necessity, not a lifestyle choice,” Coeliac Australia said in a statement to Food magazine.

Coeliac Australia says that the Codex international standard of 20ppm of gluten is a safe level for individuals suffering from Coeliac Disease.

“Coeliac Australia’s medical advisors believe the weight of scientific evidence, clinical observation and international expert medical opinion supports 20ppm as a safe threshold for people with Coeliac Disease… 20ppm of gluten is a tiny amount equivalent to 0.002 percent in a product.

“Coeliac Australia’s position is that any change to labelling laws must ensure that the presence of gluten at any level is disclosed on a product label. This will ensure that the consumer can choose whether to consume products with “no detectable gluten” or products that have minute traces of gluten present at levels well below the prescribed safe level.”

The AFGC says that they are currently in the process of drafting an application to amend the definition of ‘gluten-free’, which will include comprehensive consumer research addressing any potential issues that may arise as a consequence of the change.

CEO of the AFGC, Gary Dawson told Food magazine that public health will be at the forefront of any proposed changes to the legislation.

“FSANZ has a process which must be followed when assessing amendments to the Australian and New Zealand Food Standards Code.These are set out in the FSANZ governing legislation, and include public consultation before forming any settled views regarding the merits of an application. In particular, FSANZ will consider public health and safety aspects of the application as part of this assessment,” he said.

“The AFGC has been advised by the Medical Board of Coeliac Australia that the Codex level is an appropriate level for ‘gluten-free’ claims. International Codex based regulations, which have been adopted in Europe, the USA and the UK, among others, require that foods labelled ‘Gluten-Free’ must contain less than 20 parts per million gluten (which represents) 20 ppm or 0.02 grams of gluten per kilogram of food.”

Current regulation is out of step

Dawson says that the current regulation in Australia and New Zealand is out of step with the widely adopted International Codex based regulations. According to Dawson, this means that Australian consumers with Coeliac Disease, who require a lifelong gluten-free diet, may be denied choice of gluten-free foods compared to their counterparts overseas.

In relation to the Australian gluten-free manufacturing space, Dawson says that if the current regulation does not adjust to take into account advances in technology relating to gluten detection, the number of products available for those people following a gluten-free diet will continue to slide.

“Thirty years ago, the threshold sensitivity for gluten testing was as high as 200ppm. Ten years ago that had dropped to 30ppm.  Five years ago it had dropped to 10ppm.  Nowadays it’s around 3ppm, and Australian analytical laboratories are looking at new test methods that are around 10 times more sensitive again,” says Dawson.

“…Improvements in gluten detection means that a food which was gluten-free five years ago may not be gluten-free today, and a food that is gluten-free today may not be gluten-free next year.  This will continually narrow the diets of those who have been medically advised to follow a gluten-free diet.”

Dawson says that the AFGC is still in the process of developing its application to amend the gluten-free standard with FSANZ, and that the Council is currently consolidating the results of both a business survey and consumer survey that addresses the concerns/impacts that a change in legislation may have on those that follow a gluten-free diet. 

“Without prejudging the outcomes of this survey, a key point of any application by the AFGC will be to respect and preserve consumer choice in ‘gluten free’ foods,” he said.