By Sue Newell
Canadian Celiac Association
Many people tell me that even though the ingredient list seems safe, they call the company anyway. Sometimes they ask if the product is produced on dedicated lines, sometimes they ask if there is gluten in the product or in the plant.
They get a variety of answers; the most common seems to be “we don’t add gluten but cannot guarantee what our suppliers do”, and this is frequently interpreted as “there is gluten in that product”, which isn’t what it means at all.
In the most interesting cases you get a completely wrong answer. Annie of Ottawa shared her experience on Facebook. She called President’s Choice about PC Sprinkle Party Cake Ice Cream and was told that there were pieces of cake in the ice cream. She was puzzled about the answer because the ingredient list did not contain any of the ingredients needed for cake (eggs and flour at a minimum). She called back later to get another service agent and got the same answer – there are pieces of pound cake in the ice cream.
Either this was a monumental labeling failure with a missing priority allergens (egg) as well as gluten sources OR the customer service message was completely wrong. Annie contacted the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and asked for an investigation.
After a few days, CFIA let her know that there were NO traces of gluten in the product. It turns out that the formula for this product just changed. Customer service had the old message, not the new one. Equally important, they had no idea that there was a change in the product.
Unfortunately, we have few ways of knowing whether the answers we get from a customer service agent are correct or not. I suspect that the intent of many of the messages to get us to hang up and not eat the product, so as to not cost the company any more money. Large companies have departments responsible for making sure their products met various government regulations, but updating customer service is usually not part of their responsibility. When that falls on a busy product manager, it isn’t always a high priority.
The idea of “we cannot guarantee that our incoming ingredients are not contaminated” is really a “duh” statement. The key word in the sentence is “guarantee”. The idea many gluten-free consumers take away is “it is contaminated”. Unfortunately, they then tend to share the information with others, continuing to spread the inaccurate conclusions.
If a company is able to make a gluten-free claim, it will be on the package. Expecting a customer service agent to go off-script and make a claim with legal ramifications is not realistic and it isn’t really a good use of your time or the company’s time.
Maybe it is time to either trust ingredient lists or to give up on processed food. It will definitely reduce your stress levels.