Gluten-free foods targetsufferers of coeliac disease, who experience digestive problems as a result of consuming gluten. Typically, gluten-free products contain starch from corn, rice, soy and buckwheat flours.
And while the food and drink industry currently looks to the Codex international standard for gluten-free foods - any foods using the term 'gluten-free' had to have less than 200 parts of gluten per million of finished product - a proposed regulation from the European Commission aims to harmonise legislation across the EU-27 bloc.
The proposed Commission regulation will set-up compositional criteria related to the claims 'gluten-free' and 'very low gluten' for foods that have been manufactured specifically to satisfy the particular nutritional requirements of people who are intolerant to gluten.
In addition, the proposed rules will introduce a provision to allow foods that are naturally free of gluten - those for normal consumption - to be labelled as 'gluten free' as long as the foods meet certain compositional requirements in relation to levels of gluten.
But the costs, benefits and risk to business of embarking on these new rules rest opaque.The burden of reformulation, mandatory and/or voluntary changes to labelling, possible loss of market share and changes in enforcement requirements may well impact food businesses that touch the gluten-free zone.
The FSA hopes to create a clearer picture by the end of September, and is currently asking stakeholders to provide feedback data, notably on estimated costs, that could bring some clarity to the situation.
Launches for gluten-free products across Europe, ranging from ice-cream to rice flakes with chocolate, and from gluten free pasta to cake rolls, actually fell from 2006 to 2008. According to product tracking market researchers Mintel, 1482 gluten free foods were launched across Europe between June 2006 and July 2007, compared with 1702 from August 2007 and July 2008.
Adoption of the European regulation may require some re-labelling of products, and consequently some costs to business. The claims which this regulation controls are voluntary claims in order to allow manufacturers to clearly highlight one particular property of their product to the consumer.
Many products which are specially manufactured to be gluten-free already make such claims and as such, clearly no re-labelling is required.
But products specifically processed to slice away their gluten content may need to be re-labelled as 'very low gluten' to comply with the new regulation. In addition the ordinary foods that manufacturers wish to label to indicate suitability for coeliacs may also need to be relabelled to comply with the new regulation.
The FSA estimates such re-labelling costs could be up to £1000 per affected product. However, the watchdog claims that the transition periods available (three years from adoption which the UK has negotiated) should allow such costs to be absorbed in routine label changes.
Some manufacturers may need, or choose, to reformulate specific products in cases wherethey are not compliant with the compositional requirements of the regulation in order to continue to make the associated claims.
"Such a decision would be based on business considerations, as it may incur ongoing costs, although practical/technical restraints may also have a bearing on this," writes the FSA.
The proposed rule from the Commission Regulation will not stop products labelled as 'gluten free' or 'very low gluten' being placed on the market, provided they comply with all the provisions.
If products cannot be reformulated or relabelled to comply with the new requirements they will have to be relabelled in a manner that the claims are not made. But the FSA is upbeat, deeming that it "does not consider that any product withdrawal would be necessary."
Testing products to determine levels of gluten
Companies making claims regarding the levels of gluten on their products should be able to demonstrate that the claim is valid and does not mislead the consumer, as required by general food law.
Manufacturers making claims about reduced gluten content are likely to have procedures in place to determine the levels of gluten in their products, so the new proposal should not, generally, incur new costs for testing products.
The Food Standards Authority is asking that all views and comments on the proposed rules for gluten-free foods should reach them by 30 September 2008.