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    Is the Canadian Celiac Association Spreading Fear and Misinformation About Gluten Free Cheerios?

    Jefferson Adams
    • Journal of Gluten Sensitivity Winter 2018 Issue

    Is the Canadian Celiac Association Spreading Fear and Misinformation About Gluten Free Cheerios?
    Caption: Photo: CC--Jordan Ferencz

    Celiac.com 12/19/2017 - The Canadian Celiac Association (CCA) finds itself facing questions of rumor-mongering and inaccuracy in the face of its ongoing comments about General Mills and Gluten Free Cheerios.

    The CCA recently retracted a controversial October 20 press release in the face of questions about the accuracy and validity of its statements. The retraction reads as follows: "The CCA retracts its statement of October 20, 2017 and replaces it with this statement due to errors in the original statement." They retracted every claim made in the first press release. 

    In addition to its erroneous, and now retracted press release, the CCA has made numerous public statements casting doubt on the process General Mills uses to create their Gluten-Free Cheerios, and other oat-based cereal products. The CCA has spread fear and confusion about the gluten-free status of Cheerios, and implied widespread gluten contamination in Cheerios. For example, the following statement attributed to the CCA was published on October 26, 2017 by Globalnews.ca: "[CCA] expressed doubt in the company's mechanical sorting system and claim of 100 per cent removal of cross-contaminants."

    Additionaly, Canadiangrocer.com reported in August 2016 that the CCA was, to paraphrase, "awaiting evidence showing the new line [of Gluten Free Cheerios] is 100% free of gluten." The article quotes Sue Newell, the CCA Manager, Education and Special Projects, as saying: "Our fear is that there are hot spots in their oats. Any given box may be fine, but every third or fifth box may not."

    Canadiangrocer.com has quoted the CCA's Manager making a very specific claim about the gluten-free status of Cheerios. If her claim is correct it would mean that 20% to 30% of all Cheerios boxes are contaminated with gluten above 20 ppm, and General Mills is producing millions of boxes of tainted cereal per month which are fraudulently labeled "gluten-free." When Celiac.com invited Sue Newell to further clarify her position she would neither confirm nor deny making the quotes, but instead said that her quotes were simply "media impressions." Although Celiac.com requested more clarification, Ms. Newell would not respond to further written questions (re-printed below) about her "media impressions." 

    Celiac.com also requested that the CCA produce any evidence to back up their claims, but so far the CCA hasn't produced anything. In response to our questions (re-printed below), which mostly remain unanswered, the CCA demurred with vague claims about general levels of gluten contamination in raw oats, and even more vague claims about the unreliability of optical sorting systems in removing gluten. They referred to studies that, after further review, appear to be unrelated to General Mills' proprietary sorting and production processes.

    CBC reported on August 31 2016, that the "Canadian Celiac Association is warning against gluten-free Cheerios products over concerns the cereal is not 100 per cent safe for people with celiac disease." What does the CCA mean by "100 percent safe for people with celiac disease?" To our knowledge General Mills has never made the claim that their sorting process results in "100 percent removal" of gluten from the oats used in their Cheerios. It is our understanding that General Mills has only ever claimed that their process results in gluten levels under 20 ppm, which allows them to be labeled "gluten-free" in both the USA and Canada, and as such they are considered safe to consume for those with celiac disease. When Celiac.com asked the CCA to provide a source for the "100% free of gluten" General Mills claim, or for clarification of her "100 per cent safe for people with celiac disease" statement, no response was provided. 

    Is the CCA hinting that the labeling standard for gluten-free products should be 0 ppm allowable gluten? Again, they would not answer this question.  It seems that the CCA made this recommendation and their associated statements based not on independent product testing, or on any confirmed accounts of gluten-exposure in people with celiac disease who had consumed Cheerios, but instead on anecdotal evidence and innuendo. 

    For their part, General Mills has at least publicly described their optical sorting process, and have gone on the record as saying that their raw unsorted oats contain anywhere from 200 ppm to 1,000 ppm gluten. They describe exactly how their sorting process reduces the gluten content in their oats to below 20 ppm, and how they then pulverize, process, and mix their sorted oats to make Cheerios (from Celiac.com's perspective it is this milling/pulverizing and mixing process that should eliminate any chance of "hot spots"). They have even applied for a patent on their optical sorting technology, and in order to receive this patent their process needs to function as described. Ultimately General Mills stands by their product every day by putting a "Gluten Free" label on every box right next to their trade mark. 

    Remember Paul Seelig? Back in 2011, before we even had gluten-free labeling laws in the USA, he sold regular bread that was labeled as "gluten-free." He was tried and convicted of fraud and was sentenced to 11 years in prison. The idea that people can just slap a gluten-free label on a product that contains gluten above 20 ppm and somehow escape our judicial system, whether it be private attorneys who sue them or criminal prosecutors, is highly unlikely.

    Ultimately the CCA is calling General Mills, Health Canada and the FDA into question when they make unfounded claims based solely on fear and innuendo. The CCA is also casting doubt on U.S. and Canadian gluten-free standards. If 20% to 30% of Cheerios contain "hot spots" of gluten contamination, then why can't the CCA, or anyone else, produce a single box that is tainted? Where are the trial lawyers who ought to be lining up to sue them?

    Cheerios are are subject to regular, random testing by both Health Canada and the FDA. The FDA recently tested major American gluten-free brands for gluten-free labeling compliance and found that 99.5% of products tested are compliant with current gluten-free standards. The FDA found just one non-compliant product out of the hundreds they tested. They worked with the manufacturer to recall the tainted product and correct the manufacturing process. There is no indication that the non-compliant product was Cheerios or any other General Mills product.

    In this case the burden of proof for such extraordinary claims lies with the CCA, and not with General Mills. Someone can claim that the Earth is flat, or that humans never walked on the moon, however, the burden of disproving such claims doesn't lie with scientists who spent their entire lives creating a massive body of evidence which support what are now generally accepted facts, but with those making the extraordinary claims. Accordingly, it is only fair that the CCA must back up their claims with more than the equivalent of a vague conspiracy theory, which to disprove, would require General Mills to literally test every piece of cereal in every box of Cheerios (i.e., billions of boxes).

    General Mills returned our telephone calls and freely answered our questions. They provided a reasonable description of their sorting process and answered our questions about it. The CCA has been coy and evasive when questioned about their past statements, their claims about Cheerios, and their stance on the 20 ppm gluten-free standard, or any other standard for gluten-free labeling. Until such time as the CCA stands by their statements, and until they provide actual evidence to back up their claims, their claims should be regarded with skepticism.

    In their reply to our questions, the CCA included three links to articles they feel support their position on oats:

    1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21623493  Koerner et al 2011
    2. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308814616312614  Fritz et. al 2016
    3. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ijfs.13288/full Fritz et al 2016

    Celiac.com addresses those studies in a separate article, entitled: Why Do Quaker and General Mills Approach Gluten-Free Oats Differently?

    Questions Emailed to the CCA by Celiac.com, followed by their response:

    QUESTIONS FOR THE CCA REGARDING CHEERIOS GLUTEN-FREE LABELING AND RELATED ISSUES:

    The standard for under 20 ppm allowable gluten in gluten-free foods remains unchanged. in Canada, the US, and the EU. The standard is supported by Health Canada, which says that gluten levels under 20 ppm are safe for the vast majority of people with celiac disease. The 20 ppm standard is also supported by the CFIA, the FDA, the EU, by scientific and medical data, and by all major celiac disease researchers.

    QUESTIONS:

    1) Health Canada says that 20 ppm gluten is safe for celiacs. Does the CCA believe and support that standard?

    ANSWER: No Response.

    If not, what standard is safe, according the CCA?

    ANSWER: No Response.

    2) Health Canada allows up to 5 ppm gluten in "Marketing Authorization" oats. Obviously, gluten content above 0 but under 5 ppm is not "100% gluten-free. Does the CCA have any problem with such "gluten-free" oats?

    ANSWER: No Response.

    3) With respect to the gluten-free Cheerios products in Canada, Candiangrocer.com reported in August 2016 that the CCA was, to paraphrase, "awaiting evidence showing the new line is 100% free of gluten." Is that still the position of the CCA?

    ANSWER: No Response.

    4) The Candiangrocer.com article also states: "Our fear is that there are hot spots in their oats," said Newell. "Any given box may be fine, but every third or fifth box may not." Is the CCA asserting that 20% to 30% of Cheerios boxes are contaminated with gluten? What is the basis for this claim? Is the CCA forming policy based actual official test results?

    ANSWER: No Response.

    5) Similarly, the CBC reported on August 31 2016, that the "Canadian Celiac Association is warning against gluten-free Cheerios products over concerns the cereal is not 100 per cent safe for people with celiac disease." Can you clarify what you mean by "100% gluten-free" and "100 percent safe for people with celiac disease?"

    ANSWER: No Response.

    6) In a recent article published in October 26, 2017, Globalnews.ca writes "[CCA] expressed doubt in the company's" mechanical sorting system and claim of 100 per cent removal of cross-contaminants.
     

    ANSWER: No Response.

    7) Again, can CCA clarify what it means by "100 percent removal" of gluten?

    ANSWER: No Response.

    8) Also, we are unaware of General Mills ever making a claim that their sorting process results in a "100 percent removal" of gluten from the oats used to makes Cheerios, only that their process results in gluten levels under 20 ppm, and within the range for labeling product as gluten-free. Can CCA provide any source for General Mills ever making a claim that their sorting process for oats results in a 100 percent removal of all gluten?

    [
    ]

    ANSWER: No Response.

    9) Is it the position of the CCA that the standard for gluten-free labeling should be 0 ppm allowable gluten? If so, how would that be measured? What products would be able to makes such a claim?

    ANSWER: No Response.

    10) Does the CCA have any scientific data that shows that gluten levels under 20 ppm are dangerous or harmful for people with celiac disease?

    ANSWER: No Response.

    11) Does the CCA have any scientific data or medical testing to show that Cheerios do not meet the 20 ppm standard for gluten?

    ANSWER: No Response.

    12) If Cheerios meet US FDA standards for gluten-free products, and routinely test at below 20 ppm gluten, does the CCA feel removing the gluten-free label in Canada makes people with celiac disease any safer? If yes, how?

    ANSWER: No Response.

    13) Regarding CCA claims of member complaints about Cheerios: Is it not possible that people who claim an adverse reaction to Cheerios are actually having a reaction to the avenin protein in oats, or to higher fiber in oats?

    ANSWER: No Response.

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    I would't touch a commercially prepared food of any kind with the proverbial ten -foot-spoon. I don't trust "20 ppm" as being "safe", I don't eat ANY grains at all. I trust the government and the major manufacturers about as far as I could throw them - which isn't very.

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    Something that I have always struggled with is the 20ppm... I read that a response to gluten can be trigger with as little as 7ppm... even more sensitive than a peanut allergy (which if I recall correctly was around 10ppm). If this sensitivity level for celiac is valid, then why is 20ppm considered safe?

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    I tried it twice and both times I got sick. I read that there was a recall and the issue had been fixed that is why I tried it again. The second time I was so sick I went to the ER doubled over in pain. If you actually read about how they make it gluten free you find that they shake out the wheat and barley with a machine for every 1000 oats there were 200 wheat and barley grains left. It comes in under the 20ppm but I will never ever eat it again even though PC I loved Cheerios. No it is not a problem with oats I eat gluten-free oatmeal without any problems.

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    I tried Cheerios and by the 3rd day was beginning to feel sick to my stomach. I do eat Bob's Red Mill Oats every day without a problem. I DO NOT eat Cheerios. I think they should go thru more proper/regular testing before putting on the gluten-free label!

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    Guest Scott Adams

    Posted

    This article, being a Canadian and fairly familiar with the issue, is not that accurate about HC and the CFIA and their rules around gluten content. There is NO tolerance for gluten - it is not that a product needs to be under 20ppm. Testing starts at the lowest a machine can test for gluten (about 3ppm currently) and the CFIA becomes concerned at 10ppm when a product is showing gluten content and when it reaches 20ppm it can no longer be called gluten-free. The standard in Canada which has been in place longer than the USA and Europe who until a decade or two ago following the WHO standard of less than 200ppm, is LESS THAN 20ppm, starting at the lowest amount possible. As for the CCA, they have done their testing and due diligence with HC and the CFIA. From reading the questions you posed of them this does not seem to be a well researched, fair, unbiased article.

    Health Canada states that items below 20 ppm are gluten-free, and safe for celiacs. The CCA will not clarify their position on this, which, as a support group, they should be willing to do.

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    Guest Jefferson

    Posted

    I would't touch a commercially prepared food of any kind with the proverbial ten -foot-spoon. I don't trust "20 ppm" as being "safe", I don't eat ANY grains at all. I trust the government and the major manufacturers about as far as I could throw them - which isn't very.

    Believing something doesn't make it true. Medical research has clearly demonstrated that the vast majority of people with celiac disease can safely consume products below 20 ppm gluten, and that their guts will heal and become normal, even while consuming gluten under 20 ppm.

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    Guest Jefferson

    Posted

    This article, being a Canadian and fairly familiar with the issue, is not that accurate about HC and the CFIA and their rules around gluten content. There is NO tolerance for gluten - it is not that a product needs to be under 20ppm. Testing starts at the lowest a machine can test for gluten (about 3ppm currently) and the CFIA becomes concerned at 10ppm when a product is showing gluten content and when it reaches 20ppm it can no longer be called gluten-free. The standard in Canada which has been in place longer than the USA and Europe who until a decade or two ago following the WHO standard of less than 200ppm, is LESS THAN 20ppm, starting at the lowest amount possible. As for the CCA, they have done their testing and due diligence with HC and the CFIA. From reading the questions you posed of them this does not seem to be a well researched, fair, unbiased article.

    The position of Health Canada is that gluten content under 20 ppm is safe for the vast majority of people with celiac disease. The CCA will neither agree or disagree with that position. The CCA regularly uses hyperbole and innuendo to imply that Cheerios are contaminated with gluten, and not safe for people with celiac disease. However, the CCA has yet to produce a single contaminated box of Cheerios. The CCA also refuses to stand by or disown direct quotes of their statements that appeared in major news articles. Why can't the CCA simply admit what they have said in the past, or simply deny it, or maybe make a correction? By playing coy, and acting like their own statements are simply "media perception," the CCA damages its own credibility and does a disservice to people with celiac disease. There is simply no evidence that Cheerios are not gluten-free. Also, the Cheerios that will be sold in Canada will be the same Cheerios that carry a gluten-free label in the US. So, they will be gluten-free by both FDA and Health Canada standards.

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  • About Me

    Jefferson Adams earned his B.A. and M.F.A. at Arizona State University, and has authored more than 2,000 articles on celiac disease. His coursework includes studies in biology, anatomy, medicine, and science. He previously served as Health News Examiner for Examiner.com, and provided health and medical content for Sharecare.com.

    Jefferson has spoken about celiac disease to the media, including an appearance on the KQED radio show Forum, and is the editor of the book Dangerous Grains by James Braly, MD and Ron Hoggan, MA.

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