While global market demand for gluten-free food products is increasing, undeclared and mislabelled allergens, (including gluten) throughout the supply chain continue to be the number one cause of consumer product recalls. This is of major concern since the number of individuals affected by life-threatening allergies is on the rise.
Unfortunately, there is currently no cure for celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity or intolerance, nor is there any on the horizon. The only treatment is a strict gluten-free diet, since more recent science indicates that mere reduction of gluten intake for these persons is not enough. Research has shown that without a gluten-free diet, long-term exposure can lead to very serious health consequences such as severe neurological manifestations including loss of brain function.
Food labels are an important source of information for individuals who are required to adhere to a gluten-free diet. As an important element of a robust gluten-free management system, testing for gluten leads to confidence in a product's safety, provides information for label compliance and helps to prevent costly recalls.
While testing is important, the long-term outcome of BRCGS’ Gluten-Free Certification Program (GFCP) is to promote a systems approach to prevent failures that could harm the public. Correctly applied, a site’s gluten-free management system will provide a very strong level of protection from failure, and if failure does occur, it will enable the rapid identification and management of risks and deviations. Consumers will benefit by having increased confidence in their purchases through the display of trusted on-pack trademarks.
Testing can be used to confirm the allergen status of raw materials at receipt, to verify cleaning processes, and to evaluate finished products. An array of test methods exist for this purpose including immunochemical methods such as ELISA or lateral flow devices (LFD); DNA-based methods such as Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR); Mass spectrometry (MS), and other non-specific methods such as Protein tests, ATP and visual inspection to verify cleaning.
The choice of test method is very important and depends on the type of sample, food matrix, processing effects, and cost. ELISA and lateral flow devices are often used on-site at the production facility because results can be obtained quickly, costs are relatively low, and personnel can be easily trained to use these tests. In some circumstances of highly processed samples, PCR may be a better choice. However, PCR testing requires specialized equipment and skilled technicians so is usually performed in a third-party testing lab. Mass spectrometry is yet another option but can be costly and like PCR this method requires specialized equipment and skilled personnel to perform the analysis.
Given the wide range of allergen testing options, advice should be sought from a technical expert, such as a local accredited laboratory or a reputable allergen test kit manufacturer. This will help ensure the best analytical approach is used to verify and validate effective implementation of allergen controls, which all leads to increased consumer protection. A comparison of commercially available ELISA and LFD test kits can be found in Appendix 5 of the GFCP Standard.
While the GFCP is primarily based on a management system approach for the control of gluten, testing plays an integral role in ensuring your processes and procedures are working correctly.