A Wrinkle in the “Gluten-Free” Domino’s Debate

The internet has been a-twitter (literally and figuratively!) with news of the new Domino’s Gluten-free pizza.  In a nutshell, the pizza itself is made with gluten-free ingredients, however, it is made in the same ovens and cut with the same equipment on the same counters…and obviously there’s a huge potential for cross contamination, because crumbs are enough to cause damage for anyone with Celiac or gluten sensitivity.

Obviously Domino’s isn’t the first company to sell gluten-free products with significant cross-contamination issues.  The unusual part here is that the National Foundation of Celiac Awareness has given Domino’s an “Amber seal”.  As per Domino’s website:

The NFCA supports Domino’s efforts to provide a Gluten Free Crust to a national audience and has given Domino’s a “Gluten Free Ingredients” rating. The NFCA granted Domino’s this rating because of our verified ingredients, consumer education approach and customer service training. This means the NFCA and Domino’s do not recommend this pizza for people with celiac disease. However, because the risk for gluten exposure is low, this product may be an option for those with mild gluten sensitivities. While the Gluten Free Crust contains no gluten ingredients, a risk of gluten exposure can occur due to the handcrafted nature of the pizza and the variety of procedures in the kitchen.

University of Maryland’s Center for Celiac Research and the Gluten Intolerance Group have spoken out loud and clear, expressing that this pizza isn’t appropriate for people with Celiac NOR people with gluten-sensitivity, and as Dr. Alessio Fasano put it in an interview yesterday on Gluten-Free Voice Blog Radio, “I’m really am distressed about Domino’s.  It’s pretty obvious that they see the opportunity and they could care less about the needs of the Celiac community, the gluten-free community.  They just want to make money…They could have done a good job, and decided not to.” GIG, a celiac disease support group that also certifies restaurants, went further and called for complete discontinuation of the Amber, and 1in133 is now circulating a petition to make this Amber designation go away.

Obviously there are many articles on the web, but the one area I haven’t is possibly the most vital. Won’t this be illegal really soon? The FDA has a gluten-free rulemaking underway, and a final rule is expected to be issued in late 2012. Rhonda Kane, a Registered Dietitian at the FDA, has been hard at work on this project. According to Ms. Kane, “Restaurants would be expected to adhere to the same gluten-free standard established by FDA as packaged foods.” As of now, one of the criteria for FDA’s proposed gluten-free standard is that a food, whose labeling is regulated by FDA, cannot contain 20 parts per million or more gluten, regardless of its source, which includes the presence of gluten due to cross-contact situations.

So where does that exactly leave Domino’s and their “gluten-free” crust?

I asked Jules Shepard, gluten-free baker extraordinaire and one of the movers behind 1in133.  “Based upon my radio interview with Alice Bast, founder and president of the National Foundation of Celiac Awareness (NFCA), and upon others of her statements regarding the testing of these Domino’s “gluten-free” pizzas, the initial tests of these pizzas showed that some of the pizzas tested above 20 ppm and some tested to below 20 ppm.”  Somehow I’m doubting that some under 20ppm is good enough to be legit when the new rules are in place.

The biggest problem is the failure of communication. Yes, Domino’s includes a disclaimer on the gluten-free claim online and in stores, but not over the phone.  And, per reports from our local celiac chapter, people are assuming that the pizza is safe because Domino’s is big chain and NFCA is very literally backing it, and people are missing the fine print.  I’m not the only one hearing it.

Says Jules: “People are eating the pizzas and suffering ill effects, and people are giving the pizza to their celiac children because they saw an NFCA seal associated with the pizza and assumed that it must be safe. I am at a loss as to why a foundation which exists to protect celiacs (the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness) would put their name anywhere near this contaminated product. It will only serve to confuse the consumers they purport to protect, and will cause people to be sickened.”

IMHO, once the FDA rules are in place, this pizza is history anyhow.  I’m hoping there’s enough support to make it vanish early–or to convince Domino’s to do the right thing and gift the gluten-free community with a  TRULY gluten-free pizza.

Many thanks to Ms. Rhonda Kane and Ms. Jules Shepard for allowing me to quote them.  If it’s not in quotes, the views reflected in this article are mine alone and do not reflect the views of the FDA, Ms. Kane, Ms. Shepard, organizational boards I serve on or any other entities.

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