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Celiac Sprue Association Challenges Authority of FDA and TTB, Stating Omission Beer is Gluten-Free

by: Peter Olins, PhD and Gillian Olins, PhD on November 20, 2013. 

In a radical departure from the Celiac Sprue Association’s (CSA’s) customary low-key and conservative approach to gluten-free food safety, Monday’s surprising press release declaring that Omission Beer is gluten-free and risk-free for celiacs is a startling repudiation of the regulatory authority and scientific legitimacy of the FDA and TTB (Tax and Trade Bureau). Does this signal a fundamental shift in the mission of CSA, and will its members support this new level of political and business advocacy?

In past articles, we have discussed the challenges of determining the safety of gluten-reduced beers, and whether a “gluten-free” label is meaningful:

http://ultimateglutenfree.com/2012/10/gluten-free-beer-barley-malt-safe-celiacs/

http://ultimateglutenfree.com/2013/07/gluten-free-beer-does-omission-beer-deliver-goods-simple-guide-non-biochemist/

Omission Beer Endorsed by Celiac Sprue AssociationAccording to the FDA, there is currently no valid method for measuring residual gluten contamination of “hydrolyzed foods”, which would include food products, such as beer and malt vinegar. For historical reasons, the TTB is actually the body that regulates beer, but has made it clear that it will follow the lead of the FDA’s scientific assessment.

Surprisingly, as of yesterday, the CSA website agreed with the FDA’s position on GF labeling of hydrolyzed foods: “Not allowed—with present available commercial methodology the extent or consistency of the processes is not measurable.” But today an extra sentence was added: “Allowed if documented absent of celiac toxic amino acid fractions.”

Likewise, the Omission Beer website includes the warning that, “The gluten content of this product cannot be verified, and this product may contain gluten.” Surely these apparent inconsistencies will cause confusion among the general public and celiac community?

In the past, we have actively supported the CSA’s position that GF labeling should involve the strictest practical safety criteria. In fact, until recently, the CSA has required that products bearing its “Seal of Approval” meet stricter gluten-free standards (5 ppm gluten) than the FDA requires. However, the CSA now seems to have made a complete reversal, stating that unpublished, unvalidated techniques can be used to declare whether a food is GF. Unlike the FDA, which has deliberately focused on measuring gluten levels, the CSA has gone the extra step to make a claim about safety. But we can find no published scientific evidence that addresses whether this product is safe for celiacs to consume.

We strongly believe that businesses have legitimate needs for regulations that are practically feasible and economically viable. We also applaud all companies that are striving to create safer products for celiacs. However, it is puzzling why the CSA would take such an unusual stance for a product that is not an essential food, but a recreational item (even though it is potentially very enjoyable!). The phrase “gluten-reduced” accurately describes the properties of Omission Beer, and it seems that a further definition of “GF” is more likely to offer a marketing, rather than a safety, advantage.

The four key issues are:

  1. Is this declaration scientifically valid?
  2. What are the consequences of publicly contradicting the two U.S. governmental bodies responsible for regulating beer and determining what levels of gluten contamination are acceptable for products that are labeled “gluten-free”?
  3. Does this signal a general relaxing of gluten-free labeling requirements by the CSA, which are currently more stringent than the FDA itself?
  4. How will the general public interpret this latest statement from the CSA?
  5. Will this undermine the credibility of all the other products that the CSA endorses?

As PhD scientists who have studied protein biochemistry for most of our careers, we have several, detailed, technical concerns about the CSA’s reliance on “mass spectrometry” to predict the safety of foods. Rather than pre-judging the issue, we have urgently requested details of the technical information that the CSA used to arrive at its new position regarding beer. We will update this blog once we have received these details, and will gladly modify our critique if we conclude that the data are valid.

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