Customer Service Lines Provide Inconsistent Info to Celiacs

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.

PC Sprinkle Party Cake 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.

cfia logoThe 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.


About David E. Fowler

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One thought on “Customer Service Lines Provide Inconsistent Info to Celiacs

  1. Hi, my name is Ashley,

    I was diagnosed with Celiac Disease when I was 14 months old. (I will be 26 this November)

    I am replying to your email because I literally went through something very similar in August but with a different product.

    It was a Rolo Chocolate Bar by Nestle. When I was child I remember this chocolate bar being safe for me to eat. So when I saw a deal at a local gas station, I purchased 2 of them, of course I had double checked the ingredients too, and I didn’t see anything offering the idea that wheat gluten may be in the ingredients.

    When I got back to my office, I went to unwrap one of the chocolate bars, and case of habit, read the ingredients one more time. This time the ingredients say in brackets “may contain wheat”.

    What the flying knickerbockers does that even mean? How could one wrapper say nothing of the sort, and the other wrapper say may contain.

    I was absolutely Fumed. How in the world could you possibly sell a product with different types of information for one product?

    So I had called Nestle, waited on the phone for nearly half an hour, when a young female’s voice finally answered my call. She looked into it, and told me that yes there are traces of gluten in this product, but she could neither deny nor confirm the exact trace, she couldn’t tell me how either. She didn’t have any information (or so she claimed) on whether or not the traces of gluten where made into the product, or if it was just not made in a celiac friendly environment, or if it was the glue on the wrapper itself!

    The end result? I gave the chocolate to someone else, and now know to not trust Nestle.

    I make most of my food from scratch at home. I trust brands like Energy, Kinnikinick, and Udi’s. I turn my nose to the majority of food companies that claim to be gluten free. Food companies are allowed to claim that their product is “Gluten Free” even if it has 20ppm of gluten. 20 parts per million is enough to make my stomach tweek, and stir for weeks on end.

    Incidences like these are the reason why. And to boot I have anxiety when I leave the house because of it (the uncertainty that is, not having Celiac Disease). ex: Do I need to eat now? Do I need to bring or make something to take with me? Can I trust what the waitress/waiter says? NO!!!

    I’ve had waitresses tell me my plate was 100% guarantee gluten free. Stomach was upset for a month straight. turns out there was Worcestershire sauce in the food as a seasoning. Or breadcrumbs in the burger meat I ordered (Ordering burger no bun).

    I’ve come to learn that because so many people are turning towards a gluten free diet, just for fun, and that it’s a fad now, the people in the food industry don’t really care anymore. If i said i was allergic to nuts, would they serve me peanut butter?

    And I’ve witnessed these people roll their eyes at me. So it’s easier to stay home for snacks and meals.

    Any-who, sorry for the long email, but I felt the need to share this info with you.

    Thanks for reading, Ashley

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