By CCA National
The CCA recently celebrated that the “gluten-free” Cheerios would no longer be labelled as such. This voluntary decision followed complaints from the CCA to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. To be clear, the problem we had was that we could not determine if their testing protocol was adequate to confirm whether the cereal is safe for people with celiac disease. The concern is with both testing protocols and sampling protocols (choosing the oats to test).
Testing works great when a contaminant is spread evenly through the product. When you make a cup of tea, the tea is infused to the same concentration through the whole teapot. You can take a sample from anywhere and get a reliable measure of the concentration of tea. This also works with a batter where all the ingredients are thoroughly mixed.
Wheat and barley are not homogeneously (evenly) spread throughout the oats, though. The contamination is heterogeneous (spotty).
Suppose I have two cups of sugar and I add 10 grains of salt into one spot in the bowl. I ask you to decide if there is any salt in the sugar. That might seem like an extreme example, but it is not that far off the situation with cleaned oats.
If you just randomly pick a spot to sample, you might or might not find the salt depending on where you happen to take your sample from. You might hit the hot spot, you might miss. If you take more samples, you are more likely to find the salt. If you take bigger samples, you are more likely to find the salt. You can’t test the whole bowl, though, because the test destroys the sample.
The concern with General Mills is that they have not shared their sampling strategy or the results so it is almost impossible to figure out how big risk is.
Another concern is that there are conditions a company can put on farmers to reduce the amount of contamination in their oats e.g. don’t grow oats the year after wheat. We don’t know what General Mills is doing on this account.
Finally, since cleaned oats started to be used, there have been some significant concerns raised about testing. Some test protocols have increased the recommended sample size to get better results. The AOAC, the scientific organization that approves tests, has created a working group on testing cleaned oats to review the entire protocol that is currently working on the issue.
The CCA is two years through a set of projects funded by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada with the goal of determining the amount of contamination in a variety of crops, including oats. The goal is to determine how large the problem is and where most contamination happens (seed planting, in the field, during harvest, during milling etc.)
This work is just one example of how the CCA is working to make sure you have the right to safe food. And we’ll keep working hard for all Canadians with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity!