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Restaurant Resource Center

What You and Your Kitchen Staff Need to Know About the FDA's New Gluten-Free Definition

What You and Your Kitchen Staff Need to Know About
the FDA's New Gluten-Free Definition

“We want everyone coming to our restaurant to be able to order off the menu and to leave feeling satisfied, special, happy and full,” says Maged Fattah, co-owner of Local Urban Kitchen, with locations in Pt. Pleasant Beach and Brielle, NJ. That’s why he, like many restaurateurs, has added some gluten-free options to his menu rotation.

“At the start of the gluten-free trend, restaurants were quick to label ‘GF’ on their menu items” Rachel Begun, a food and nutrition consultant in Boulder, CO. But with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Gluten-Free Labeling Ruling, which goes into effect on August 5, 2014, "gluten-free" now has specific meaning. To bear the GF label, items must be less than 20 parts per million of gluten, the threshold considered safe for the majority of people with celiac disease.

Even though the FDA doesn’t regulate restaurants, it does expect eateries to comply, according to information published on the agency’s Web site. “We encourage the restaurant industry to move quickly to ensure that its use of ‘gluten-free’ labeling is consistent with the federal definition and look forward to working with the industry to support their education and outreach to restaurants.”

According to Begun, “with FDA's ruling going into effect and the restaurant industry beginning to understand how serious it is for people with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity to ingest gluten, we are starting to see many restaurants make disclaimers on their menus that they cannot guarantee 100 percent against cross contact.”

“Restaurants that want to do the right thing often have to make significant changes to their kitchen and storage set up, the types and uses of their equipment and how their people are trained,” she says.

Here’s what you and your kitchen staff need to know:

1. Know Your Ingredients

“Today, wheat gluten is used in too many ways when not needed, like when there are flours made of gluten-free grains, [plus there’s] quinoa, brown rice, almond, cornmeal and coconut, which are all great flour alternatives,” Fattah says. “Using foods like gluten-free oats instead of breadcrumbs, ground flax seed, quinoa and brown rice in many different ways can make cooking gluten-free an easier process without the headaches.”

2. Create a Separate or Designated Work Area

“Having a space that is strictly gluten-free is always preferred, but this is not always possible,” says Plano, TX-based food scientist Pamela Roybal. “As long as the staff is correctly trained on the danger of cross-contamination and knows how to avoid it, it does not present a problem.” If you can’t sequester gluten-free prep and cooking, she suggests creating a schedule so gluten-free dishes are produced at a different time than non-gluten free items, “preferably early in the morning so that the equipment can be correctly sanitized and to avoid cross-contamination with air particles that may be present if they are dealing with ingredients like wheat flour.”

3. Clean and Sanitize Everything

Cleaning and sanitizing tools, equipment and surfaces is a key step in avoiding cross-contamination. “Remember that porous vessels, such as cast iron, can have trace elements that will affect the very sensitive guest,” cautions Aaron Anderson, executive chef at Harlow’s Cuisine & Craft Cocktails in San Juan Capistrano, CA. Don’t forget to wipe down cooktops and ranges, too.

4. Establish Strict Food-Handling Procedures

Because it only takes a few particles to cause a flare-up, kitchen staff preparing both gluten-free and gluten-inclusive dishes should wash hands and change gloves when switching stations and change aprons and other clothing that has been exposed to gluten, Begun advises.

Going the extra mile to ensure your gluten-free menu items comply with the FDA’s new definition isn’t just a regulatory issue. It’s a customer service one.

“Gluten intolerant restaurant goers should have the ability to have just as satisfying and flavorful a meal as their gluten-devouring counterparts,” Anderson says. “But when it comes to serving gluten-free menu choices, the best advice I can offer is that if you cannot ensure that there is no possibility of cross-contamination, do not offer it as an option to your guests.”

Carrboro, NC-based Margot Carmichael Lester grew up in a gourmet grocery and parlayed that into a career writing about food, drinks and business for a variety of outlets, including in-flight magazines, consumer titles and Web sites. She has owned her own business, The Word Factory, for two decades. A devotee of dining at the bar, she favors sparkling wines and anything with bacon.