Are you confused about gluten-free labelling in restaurants?
Then read on, because I’ve found out the facts,
and I’m hoping it’ll help anyone who likes to eat out but needs to avoid gluten.
Things have changed
Let’s rewind the clock. In the last few years allergen labelling has changed considerably. For anyone like me who’s Coeliac, this is fantastic news. Gone are the days when you had to read through every ingredient on a food packet and wonder whether “modified starch” was derived from potatoes or wheat. Waiters don’t scrunch up their faces when you mention gluten – they reach for their allergen menu instead. And the awareness of gluten in general is so much better.
What’s the problem?
But there’s still uncertainty about gluten-free labelling in restaurants (or any place that serves food that isn’t pre-packaged). I recently logged on to Facebook to see a massive debate unveiling before my eyes – lots of Coeliacs arguing what was and wasn’t permitted. Was it okay to label food as ‘gluten-free’ if it was made in an environment with gluten? Should gluten-free food all be in sealed packets? Would food handled with tongs that had been used for a gluten product then make the gluten-free food no longer gluten-free?
The law for pre-packaged food
The problem seems to lie in the rules for pre-packaged food and whether they also apply to cafes and restaurants. (For those who are unsure, only pre-packaged food that contains fewer than 20ppm (parts per million) can be labelled gluten-free.)
I therefore wrote to Coeliac UK to find out the truth of the matter. So here it is: the law at this point in time for gluten-free labelling.
The response from Coeliac UK
The law on gluten free applies both to pre-packaged gluten free foods and gluten free food sold in catering establishments. The statement gluten free may only be made where the food as sold to the final consumer contains no more than 20ppm of gluten – this is applicable to pre-packaged foods and foods sold in restaurants/cafes.
If a manufacturer or a restaurant has identified a risk of cross contamination of gluten which results in a product or dish containing more than 20 ppm gluten, then they may no longer use the claim of gluten free. If they believe there is a risk of gluten contamination, that is when you may see a ‘may contain gluten’ statement on a label or a disclaimer on a menu stating that they cannot guarantee it is gluten free. It is against Food Standards Agency best practice to label gluten free and use a disclaimer, whether pre-packaged or on a menu.
So what does this mean in layman’s terms?
It means pre-packaged food has the same set of rules as freshly served food, except in one area. Clearly, pre-packaged food comes with information printed on it. In a restaurant, you can ask if a dish contains gluten. It’s legal for them to say or show you a form to show it doesn’t contain gluten.
But that doesn’t cover cross-contamination.
Look for the labelling
It’s all about whether they use labels or not. Is there a specific label with the words ‘gluten-free’? It might be on the counter next to the food or it might be the title of the menu.
Basically, just as pre-packaged food can only be labelled gluten-free if it contains fewer than 20ppm of gluten, food served in cafes & restaurants (or any catering establishment) can’t label its food gluten-free if it contains more than 20ppm. If they understand cross-contamination properly, they’ll know they legally can’t label their food gluten-free, nor can they use one of those disclaimers next to the gluten-free label such as ‘may contain gluten’ or ‘prepared in an environment where gluten is handled’.
So what should the catering establishments be doing?
Clearly, gluten-free food is either gluten-free or it isn’t. A more appropriate way forward for eating establishments would be labelling as follows:
gluten-free = fewer than 20ppm
low gluten = made without gluten but with the possibility of cross-contamination
That way there’d be one rule for all and no-one would be confused any more.
Admittedly, things are so much better than they used to be…
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to berate the cafes and restaurants that kindly try to provide for us. I’m thrilled that places now recognise gluten can be an issue and things are so much better than they used to be. But the fact remains I don’t want to be given false information. If something might contain gluten then I avoid it. Others might not have to (those with different reasons not to eat gluten might not have such an extreme sensitivity as those with coeliac disease).
Whose fault is it?
I’m not sure we can totally blame the eateries. If it’s not made abundantly clear to them what gluten-free labelling actually means, how are they supposed to know? After all, that debate I mentioned on Facebook showed half the people on it with coeliac disease were confused, and we should be the experts.
So what can we do?
Who can we get to change the labelling laws? What’s the best way forward? I know that social media sends a very powerful message to the people that make these decisions. Could this be the best way to start?
What do you think? I’d love to hear your comments below.