I know a lot of us who end up in this forum are already past reading labels and have moved on to checking out company FAQ's, calling, and emailing company reps for information (or avoiding companies entirely).
But for anyone who is just starting out, wondering if they might be more sensitive than the average celiac, and trying to figure out how to tell if their food is safe, I wanted to give an example of a real-life allergen FAQ and some questions to ask if you speak to a company's rep. Because there are a lot of ways that a company can answer our gluten free questions without actually giving us the information we need to know.
So, without further ado, the Mission (tortilla) company's relevant FAQ's on gluten, wheat, and their products. They have some questions and answers that are fairly straightforward, but I'm going to be mentioning those that need a closer look.
( http://www.missionfoods.com/FAQs.aspx )
Are Mission Foods products gluten free?
Mission Foods Corn products are produced with 100% corn flour; wheat ingredients are not added to the formulation. These products include Corn Tortillas, Corn Tortilla Chips, Taco Shells, Tostadas, Corn Gorditas, and Sopes. These products are produced in plants that also process wheat tortillas.
This type of response typically puts my hackles up, because if you note, they never actually answer the question. Not a yes, not a no, just information on their product that doesn't actually answer the question, either. It just gives ingredients and tells you about one risk factor. So at this point, we don't know if they are gluten free or not, we just know that there is no gluten added on purpose.
Is there any wheat, rye, barley, or oats in corn tortillas?
No. Mission corn tortillas do not contain wheat, rye, barley, or oat ingredients.
If you are reading through this quickly, it seems good. A straight answer: no wheat, rye, barley, or oats are in their corn tortillas. Awesome. Except if you look closely, even though the question is about ANY gluten or oats in the corn tortillas, the answer is only talking about ingredients in the corn tortillas. Once again, they sort of shuffle to the side and avoid answering the cross-contamination question.
Are wheat flour tortillas produced in the same lines as corn products?
No, our corn production lines are dedicated to corn products only. Wheat Flour tortillas are produced in dedicated lines.
This one, at least, is a simple, straightforward answer. And you know what? I'm a cynical enough person that this raises my hackles even more. Because if they can post the question about machine lines for corn and wheat products and answer with the same phrasing, that shows me that they are smart enough to have done the same thing before this.
The question before this could have read: Are there any wheat, rye, barley, or oat ingredients in corn tortillas? And then the answer would have matched the question exactly, just like this question and answer. But the company chose not to do that. A lot of companies seem to choose not to do that, or to accidentally use language that will imply the product is safe for us, if we are incautious in our reading.
Also, for those who are just starting out reading FAQ's for gluten information, the last three questions are also a good example of why we need to read the subject carefully. You'll notice that the first question is about corn products, the second is ONLY about corn tortillas (not their corn chips, tostadas, etc...) and then on the third question they're back to corn products again. It would be easy to miss the change if we were in a hurry.
Is wheat used in any way to make the corn products?
There are no wheat ingredients or incidental wheat present in the products or on the lines that produce corn products.
Is there a potential for cross-contamination of corn products with wheat ingredients?
All Mission Foods plants have strict food safety programs in place, including a very comprehensive Allergen Control Program.
The first question may sound like it's referring to cross contamination, but it's actually referring to wheat that could be used on the corn tortillas, but not added as an ingredient. Flour used to prevent sticking on the tortilla molds would be an example of this. So we know that they don't use flour on their corn products during the processing.
The second question is another one where they don't actually answer it. They tell you they have safety programs in place (which the majority of companies do) and an allergen control program (which, again, a lot of companies do). Essentially, they are saying they try to prevent cross-contamination through cleaning and practices to try and prevent cross contamination.
Two important points here:
1) This is only discussing wheat, not gluten.
2) Many companies, when mentioning allergen controls, or practices to prevent contamination by allergens, are discussing the 8 major allergens rather than any other protein (like rye, barley, or oats). This may mean that they have practices that will help prevent contamination between batches of all products with all other products. Or it could mean there is more care taken with products that contain one of the 8 major allergens, and there might not be as much care taken to prevent cross-contamination of other proteins (again, like rye, barley, or oats).
The questions that this company has not answered that many of us sensitive celiacs need to know:
- Are any corn products made on a gluten-free line? We know it's not a gluten-free facility, and that the line is wheat free, but is it gluten free?
- Are any of their corn products tested for gluten? If so, how frequently?
- If their products are tested, what is the ppm sensitivity level of the test? Does their product have to be below a certain ppm level before they will sell it?
Now, while Mission did not make any claims of being gluten free, even if they did, as a sensitive celiac, it's a good idea to make sure they have confirmed this. The mantra is: DO THEY TEST FOR GLUTEN?
Because if they don't? ANY claims that their product is gluten free haven't been confirmed. And in the USA, there aren't any legal troubles for making that claim without testing to back it up.
Some celiacs are perfectly fine with this (heck, my father and brother eat Mission chips all the time). But many of us here avoid companies that don't test, or avoid companies that don't keep their gluten concentration levels even lower than 20ppm.
For Mission, I did go on to ask them some questions about whether they tested or not, if they had gluten free lines. I was told that the corn tortillas are made on dedicated lines. So that's good to know. I was also told that their "corn products do not contain any gluten and there is no cross contamination with any other products."
This is a very common response to a question about gluten testing. A company or rep will not answer the question but simply respond that their product is gluten free/ has no cc from gluten.
Unfortunately, for a sensitive celiac, this may not be good enough. And even if a rep tells me that they do test? If they don't know the ppm detection level of the test, I push for it. Because in my experience of contacting companies, it's not unusual to have a company rep assume that their product 'must' be tested for gluten because they call their product gluten free. Of course they test. They have to. Right?
Yeah, not so much. I've been told that a company tests, and then when the rep had to check on the ppm sensitivity of the test, they found out that the product was not tested for gluten at all. So this last ppm question really acts as more of a confirmation that the rep you spoke to actually knew what they were talking about.
Anyway, hope that this oddball FAQ psuedo-tutorial might help some of you out who are new to super sensitivity. Good luck in navigating the gluten free product maze!