Gluten refers to the proteins that occur naturally in wheat, rye, barley and crossbreeds of these grains. The U.S. market for gluten-free products has grown rapidly, reaching $4.2 billion in 2013. It is on pace to reach $6.6 billion by 2017. Why do consumers care if a product is gluten-free?
Gluten Causes Certain Diseases
About three million Americans, or about one in 133, suffer from celiac disease. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which consumption of gluten causes permanent damage to the surface of the small intestines. This damage interferes with the absorption of nutrients into the body, leading to vitamin deficiencies that deprive the brain, bones, nervous system and liver of vital nourishment.
An additional 18 million Americans are gluten-sensitive, which means that exposure to the protein can cause symptoms like headaches, fatigue and joint pain. Other consumers seek to avoid gluten for specific dietary reasons.
The only way to manage celiac disease is dietary -- to not eat gluten. Hence the “gluten-free” labels.
The FDA Sets Standards for Labels
In August 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration set a government standard for what it takes to earn the label “gluten-free.” The standard applies not only to products labeled gluten-free, but also “free of gluten,” “without gluten,” “and “no gluten.”
The FDA defined “gluten-free” as containing less than 20 parts per million of gluten. Manufacturers must be in compliance by August 2014. The rule also applies to dietary supplements.
The rule does not require that all food products that are gluten-free be labeled as such. It requires that products, which promote themselves in the marketplace as gluten-free meet these standards. The new rule does not prevent naturally gluten-free products such as bottled water, fruits and vegetables, and eggs from featuring the label gluten-free.
Under the new rule, a food label that fails to meet the requirements of the rule would be considered misbranded and subject to regulatory action by the FDA.
Under ADA, Celiac Disease Is a Disability
According to a precedent setting ruling issued early in 2013 by the U.S. Justice Department, celiac disease (and other severe food allergies and sensitivities) can be considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
As a result, schools, restaurants and other places that serve food can be exposed to legal challenges if they fail to honor requests for accommodations by people with celiac disease.
The Department initiated an investigation of Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., after a student complained that the school’s mandatory meal plan did not provide sufficient gluten-free food alternatives, and that the school did not accommodate the needs of those on gluten-free diets by excusing their participation in the meal plan or providing a reasonable alternative.
In the settlement agreement, the university will be required to provide gluten-free options in its dining hall. The school must also allow students to pre-order, provide a dedicated space for storage and preparation of gluten-free foods to avoid contamination, train staff about food allergies, and pay a $50,000 cash settlement to affected students.
Contact a Consumer Product or Disability Lawyer
The issues surrounding the sale of gluten-free products can be complicated, and are constantly changing. Plus, the facts of each case are unique. This article provides a brief, general introduction to the subject. It is not legal advice. For more detailed information about your specific situation, please contact a consumer product lawyer or a disability lawyer.