When state officials sought to shut down a Durham food company last month for marketing bread as gluten-free that tested positive for gluten, cheers went up across the country among those suffering from celiac disease.
"What North Carolina did enforcing gluten-free claims is say, 'We're going to take the health of North Carolinians seriously," said Alice Bast, executive director of the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, a nonprofit based outside Philadelphia. "I have to applaud North Carolina."
Enforcement of gluten-free claims on food products is rare because federal officials have yet to define the term "gluten-free." The Federal Drug Administration was supposed to have a definition by 2008 but the process has dragged on. Without a government definition, those with celiac disease have to rely on food companies to be honest about the contents of their products, test the products regularly, and prevent cross-contamination.
"Without the FDA having their final ruling, companies can do whatever they want," says Cynthia Kupper, executive director of the Gluten Intolerance Group, a company based in Washington state that certifies food companies' gluten-free claims.
Bast says food manufacturers may see gluten-free foods as a niche market where money can be made: On average, studies show, people pay between 79 percent and 242 percent more for gluten-free foods. But a gluten-free diet isn't a fad diet, Bast says; it is a necessity for people with a serious illness.
If someone with celiac disease, which affects about one in every 133 Americans, consumes gluten, the protein damages their small intestines, making them unable to absorb nutrients. The disease can lead to auto-immune disorders and an increased risk for certain cancers.
Bast and Kupper said the lack of a federally regulated definition for gluten-free leaves consumers with the disease in limbo. They have to research the company, ask about the facility where the product is made and find out whether wheat or other grains that contain gluten are processed in the same facility, which increases the chance of cross-contamination.
Because of weather, a hearing has been delayed in which the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services was expected to ask a judge to shut down Great Specialty Products of Durham permanently. The lawsuit details complaints from three people who got sick from eating the bread or whose children got sick. The company's owner, Paul Seelig, denies any wrongdoing, saying if his company's bread had gluten in it, more than three people would have complained about getting sick.
The state agriculture department's food and drug protection division is responsible for ensuring the accuracy of food labels and claims. That's the division that investigated complaints against Great Specialty Products.
The unit vets between 300 and 500 complaints from consumers annually, ranging from roaches at a grocery store to finding what they think is a bone in their bag of peanut M&Ms, which actually happened last fall. The unit's 27 inspectors and four supervisors also regularly inspect about 5,000 grocery stores and food manufacturing facilities across the state.
Most complaints are resolved with the manufacturer's cooperation, says Anita MacMullan, food compliance supervisor. The lawsuit against Great Specialty Products is the first during MacMullan's 18 years as a department employee. "This truly is a unique course of action for us to take," she said.
One consumer who appreciates their efforts with regards to Great Specialty Products is Zach Becker of Knightdale, who writes a blog about living with celiac disease and eating a gluten-free diet.
"It's great that they are acting on our behalf," Becker said.
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