Avoid, If At All Possible

On October 5 of this year, Jim Murphy, president of General Mills cereal business, announced the recall of boxes of gluten-free Cheerios™ and Honey Nut Cheerios™ on the company’s blog: “. . . this recall is necessary because an undeclared allergen—wheat—with potential adverse health effects may be present in cereals we produced on several dates in Lodi [CA], in July.” According to the company, wheat flour was inadvertently added to their “gluten-free oat flour system.” General Mills called this a “human error.”

Murphy also stated: “We have long said we would address any issue if we ever found we were making cereal that wasn’t meeting our gluten-free standard—and today that became necessary.” He goes on: “We are testing all finished products. We’ve also instituted additional flour-handling protocols at all facilities to ensure this will never happen again.”

Interestingly, he doesn’t say if this inspection process was in place prior to the contamination in July or put into place after it occurred? If it was in place prior to the incident, wouldn’t the error have been detected? Could this incident actually be the result of a procedural error?

Knowing people with celiac disease this error is a serious one, because precautions against cross contamination are critical to protect the health of such individuals—I know someone with celiac who has a four-slice toaster in their kitchen; the two right slots are only used for gluten-free bread.

Most people think a gluten reaction only affects the digestive tract; think again. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity exists, and some symptoms of this condition are: joint pain, foggy thinking, headaches, and numbness in arms, legs, fingers. Are you currently experiencing any of these issues? Do you ever think you might have gluten sensitivity?

I have no idea of the design and setup of the General Mills gluten-free facilities. I know the government has strict standards for gluten free—less than 20 parts per million (ppm) in foods that carry the gluten-free label. Some questions: What was wheat flour doing at a gluten-free facility especially given government standards and the risk of cross contamination? Was the wheat flour clearly marked? How distinctive is its packaging from the one for gluten-free oat flour?

A lawsuit now exists in California over this General Food error for “deceptive, unfair, and false advertising and merchandising practices.” This will be an interesting case to follow.

How can we protect ourselves? The only safe way I see, if at all possible, is to avoid packaged/processed food and eat only whole, fresh foods (no labels required). Extreme? We each have to decide the risks we’re willing to take regarding our food sources.

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