The Canadian Celiac Association (CCA) has been warning celiac disease and gluten-sensitive sufferers not to consume Cheerios since it was first labelled gluten-free in August 2016.
The CCA alleged the $15.6bn cereal giant has not disclosed enough details about its testing procedure to guarantee the cereal was 100% gluten-free.
Shortly after General Mills launched gluten-free Cheerios in the US last year, it was forced to recall 1.8 million boxes because wheat flour had been inadvertently mixed in with the oats.
Despite the recall, the Minneapolis-headquartered company contended “extensive testing” ensures the oat-based cereal exceeds Canada’s standards for gluten-free designation of less than 20 parts per million of gluten.
However, it will still make the move to remove the gluten-free label, according to General Mills spokesperson Mike Siemienas.
But only as and when stores require a restock of the cereal.
The company will not be pulling boxes of Cheerios currently bearing the gluten-free label, but will replace them once sold with label-free boxes.
According to Siemienas, there is no health risk with products currently on the shelf.
The disagreement highlights the complexities of gluten testing and how to avoid grain cross-contamination.
Oats are naturally gluten-free, but at high risk for contamination from gluten-containing grains like wheat, barley and rye, from the farmer’s field through to the manufacturing process.
General Mills said its manufacturing process removes any trace amounts of wheat, rye and barley that may have entered its oats supply at farm level, but the CCA contends the company’s sampling program could miss gluten “hot spots”.
For example, a sampling on a test batch of oats could show an acceptable result of less than 20 parts per million of gluten, but could miss a section that has a higher gluten content. These still end up in Cheerios, putting people with celiac disease at risk if they consumed it, said the CCA.
According to Health Canada, as many as 300,000 Canadians could have this disease, although many remain undiagnosed.
The CCA admitted finding the most effective way to test oats for gluten is no easy task, and there are “no hard and fast rules on how to do this” yet.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) said it was working with General Mills to address this concern.
Siemienas said until the company received consistent government testing protocols for products containing oats, it would not use the gluten-free label on future Cheerios cereal boxes.