When “Gluten Free” Means “Danger”

By now, you’ve probably heard that Domino’s rolled out a gluten-free pizza a couple of weeks ago. It was a clever marketing ploy, since May is Celiac Awareness Month, and the demand for gluten-free products is growing; the new pizza crust was covered by news organizations including ABC, CBS, NBC and USA Today. Unfortunately, Domino’s move was nothing but a cynical attempt to cash in on gluten-free consumers. Its “gluten free” pizza isn’t actually safe for celiacs or gluten-intolerant people.

If you want to read an account of the debacle, check out these articles from The Consumerist and Nation’s Restaurant News, and this particularly perceptive piece from Daily Finance. At the core of Domino’s problem is that, while they developed a pizza crust that is gluten-free, the company’s sketchy kitchen practices mean that cross-contamination with wheat is pretty much a given. As a result, Domino’s claims the pizza is for people with “mild gluten sensitivity.” Yes, you read that right. Even Daily Finance was stunned: “Seriously? Is this a tease? Why even offer gluten-free crusts without reorienting kitchens to cook them separately from crusts slathered in flour and wheat dough — exactly the ingredients that keep most celiac sufferers from even thinking about ordering a pizza? No wonder the Center for Celiac Research is recommending that those with gluten-related disorders avoid the new Domino’s crusts.”

This isn’t the first time a national chain has marketed a “gluten-free” product that was unsafe — remember California Pizza Kitchen? But to me, the most disheartening part of the Domino’s story is that its gluten-free pizza received a seal of approval from the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness. Specifically, Domino’s received something called an “Amber designation” from the NFCA. What’s an Amber designation? It’s a bizarre middle ground between Green (safe) and Red (unsafe) in the tiered credentialing system the NFCA launched in April 2012. Basically, it means that the NFCA was well aware that Domino’s “gluten-free” pizza wasn’t safe for celiacs, but the organization gave it a seal of approval anyway.

I’d be the first to say that the NFCA has done good work in the past. The organization has a terrific program to educate restaurant staffs about celiac-safe practices. But I will never again be able to look at anything that has received the NFCA’s seal of approval without suspicion. I trusted that an NFCA seal of approval meant a restaurant or product was safe for celiacs; I will never make that mistake again.

Thanks to a tremendous outcry from the celiac and gluten-free community (people like Shirley at GFE) — and a petition organized by the terrific people behind @1in133 — the NFCA has suspended use of its Amber Designation. In its public statement, the NFCA said: “Given the public response and recent developments in this field, NFCA is suspending the use of “Amber” designation to describe a restaurant or foodservices establishment. We will conduct a review to determine the most effective and clearest way to warn the community of the risk of cross-contamination and the use of the phrase ‘Gluten Free.'”

A big part of the problem is that, in the US, there is still no official designation of what gluten free means (the FDA is still working on that). The implications are frightening; to quote the American Celiac Disease Alliance: “Almost everyone with celiac disease or a related gluten-disorder knows that currently there are no gluten free labeling requirements in the United States, and that consumers are routinely misled by inappropriate labeling.”

It seems that Domino’s, and the NFCA, are determined to keep on misleading consumers. When I checked Domino’s updated FAQs about its “gluten-free” pizza after it lost its NFCA “Amber” designation, here’s what I found:

Q: What are the NFCA’s “Great Kitchen Standards” and how is Domino’s rated?

A: The NFCA supports Domino’s efforts to provide a Gluten Free Crust to a national audience and has given Domino’s a “Gluten Free Ingredients” rating. The NFCA granted Domino’s this rating because of our verified ingredients, consumer education approach and customer service training. This means the NFCA and Domino’s do not recommend this pizza for people with celiac disease. However, because the risk for gluten exposure is low, this product may be an option for those with mild gluten sensitivities. While the Gluten Free Crust contains no gluten ingredients, a risk of gluten exposure can occur due to the handcrafted nature of the pizza and the variety of procedures in the kitchen.

I searched the NFCA’s website to find out what a “Gluten Free Ingredients” rating is, and I couldn’t find any mention of it. However, I did find this NFCA statement about Domino’s:

The National Foundation for Celiac Awareness supports Domino’s efforts to meet the needs of the gluten-free community. However, we want to make sure all customers are fully informed about Domino’s practices and the potential risks of cross-contact.

Please be advised all of Domino’s menu items, including pizza made with Gluten Free Crust, are prepared in a common kitchen. While the Gluten Free Crust contains no gluten ingredients, there is a risk of gluten exposure. NFCA supports the availability of Gluten Free Crust at Domino’s, but CANNOT recommend the pizza for customers with celiac disease or any gluten-related disorder.

Working with NFCA, Domino’s recognizes its current operational model cannot – beyond all doubt – provide the environment needed to assure those with celiac disease that its pizzas are 100% gluten-free. Domino’s would rather be honest and transparent with what this product is and is not, than risk a consumer ordering this product under false pretenses.

“Honest and transparent” is not at all what I’d call this mess. Not by a long shot.

3 thoughts on “When “Gluten Free” Means “Danger”

  1. Even with regulations in place, the current business practice is to lie until you are caught and pay a fine that is less than the profit made lying to people. People die all the time from foodborne disease, improperly prescribed medicine, cost-cutting measures in workplaces from coal mines to cranes, but the money keeps on rolling.

  2. Thanks so much for the link and kind words, Hilary! And, most of all, bravo and thank you on this post! Your closing summary says it best: “Honest and transparent” is not at all what I’d call this mess. Not by a long shot.” When I hear the responsible parties being praised, frankly, I want to go barf. I am away on a lovely little vacation right now (taking a quick “tech check” before we head out to eat) and ironically, the plastic room keys we just received at check-in are a Domino’s ad. Can you say irony? 🙁

    There are so many statements that are anything, but honest and transparent. As you’ve shared, NFCA says: “Please be advised all of Domino’s menu items, including pizza made with Gluten Free Crust, are prepared in a common kitchen. While the Gluten Free Crust contains no gluten ingredients, there is a risk of gluten exposure.” But then on their site (http://www.celiaccentral.org/dominos/Customer-FAQs/679/) in their Domino’s FAQs, they also state: “The Gluten Free Crust pizza is made on the same pizza screen and uses the same makeline, ingredients, and utensils as all other pizzas. Employees use the same pizza peel and pizza cutter on the Gluten Free Crust pizza as all other pizzas.” That statement says so much more than the first one, and how can there simple be “a risk of gluten exposure” when all that is “shared” and NO attempts are made to prevent cross contamination?

    Thanks again, Hilary! Keep spreading the word, dear. Off to share your post …


  3. I love this post. It’s so unfair that companies and restaurants can call things gluten-free although no preventive measures are taken. I can’t help but be a little upset at the new “gluten free trend”. I hate it when a friend says “oh, we should go there to eat. They have gluten-free options.” However, when I try to explain they take no precautions against cross-contamination, my friends just stare back blankly. Great article! Thank you.

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