The undercover testing was conducted by City of Melbourne environmental health officers, in consultation with researchers from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, at 127 food businesses across the municipality, testing 158 food items sold as ‘gluten-free’.
Dr Jason Tye-Din, who leads coeliac disease research at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute and is a gastroenterologist at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, said that gluten contamination was a serious health-risk to those with coeliac disease.
“For people with coeliac disease a strict gluten-free diet is their treatment, not a lifestyle choice,” Dr Tye-Din said.
“Small amounts of gluten – even just a few crumbs – can be harmful over time and lead to issues such as osteoporosis or impaired growth.”
Dr Tye-Din said the study provided the first objective evidence that foods offered by businesses as ‘gluten-free’ can be contaminated with gluten.
“Previous evidence was only anecdotal with patients reporting getting sick after eating out. Our research not only validates these concerns, it also examines why gluten contamination might occur,” Dr Tye-Din said.
“It is fantastic to see so many businesses offering gluten-free options in Melbourne and with the right awareness, training and practices this can be done safely and in line with the Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) Code.”
FSANZ has stringent rules for gluten-free packaged goods and other items sold in retail outlets.
For a product to be labeled gluten free, it must have been independently tested and have a certificate identifying that it is less than 3 parts per million of gluten.
Ingredients derived from gluten containing grains must be declared on the food label, however small the amount, and foods labelled as “low gluten” must contain less than 200 parts per million of gluten.
However, it is impossible to test all meals sold in foodservice outlets that claim to be gluten free.
With that in mind, Coeliac Australia has developed a suite of resources to assist food businesses prepare gluten-free options that comply with national food regulations. The resources include a gluten-free online training module offering practical solutions for busy kitchens.
“Gluten-free remains one of the top dietary requests and we urge all food businesses to treat gluten-free requests seriously,” Coeliac Australia President Michael Bell said.
“The Coeliac Australia online training module was developed to educate hospitality staff and it highlights how even small changes to processes can help eliminate the risk of gluten contamination.”