Dedicated gluten-free facilities vs. shared facilities that handle gluten containing products…Does it matter?

food_facilityLet’s start with the simple answer first – yes, it does matter. However, as you may have guessed, this question is not always a simple yes or no answer. The answer also depends on your sensitivity level to gluten:

[table]”Your sensitivity level”, What should I do when I see a label “Made in a shared facility with gluten containing products” (most often stated as “wheat”)
Celiac disease,Throw the package as far as you can and immediately sprint far away
Severe Gluten Intolerance,Drop the package and run away
Moderate Gluten Intolerance,Set the package on the shelf and calmly walk away
Light Gluten Intolerance,Feeling Lucky? Keep reading for more info below.
“Not Gluten Intolerant, but eating GF for health and/or personal choices?”,”Keep reading, as it depends on how “clean” you want to eat. If you do not have Gluten Intolerance you have more flexibility to eat these products without ruining your diet. But, beware!”[/table]

It is important to think about some basics of how ingredients and foods are manufactured to assess your risk when looking at foods from shared facilities. Commercial food production can get incredibly complex, involving large machines that may or may not get cleaned properly, and this impacts the risk level when consuming these products. Let’s look at a couple examples.

1) Mixed Nuts:

I go to Costco from time to time and I wish I could buy the big containers of Kirkland Brand Mixed Nuts since they are priced well and I snack on nuts all the time. Unfortunately, the label states that the facility that produces this product also handles wheat.

Now, this could mean various things. So let’s dig into it – what does it mean? It could mean any or all of the following ranging from relatively low concern to very high concern:

  • Wheat products are stored at the same facility but they are not processed there (not ideal, but not as bad as it could be)
  • Wheat products are processed in the same facility but not on the same equipment/production line (I’m starting to get worried…)
  • Wheat products are processed on the same equipment/production line (Not good)

*manufacturers often refer to equipment as a “production line”

Check out this short video about nut processing to get an idea of what the machinery looks like.

Would someone with celiac disease or gluten intolerance want to eat these almonds if they had a shared facility label? I would advise anyone with celiac disease or Gluten Intolerance not to take that risk.

Unfortunately in most cases, you have to assume that the gluten containing products are processed on the same equipment. This is because there is simply no way to know for sure unless you contact the company – but even that is no guarantee.

Production plants change production plans, items produced, and equipment used and for a variety of reasons. Let’s say company XYZ makes gluten free biscotti and their label declares “made in a facility that handles wheat”. You contact them and learn that they make gluten-free biscotti on line 1 and that line 2 is used to make gluten-containing biscotti. Unfortunately, a month after you call, line 1 breaks down and in order to keep up with demand, the company begins to make GF biscotti on line 2 and risks gluten contamination. The label is still correct – “made in a facility that handles wheat” but the true story has completely changed.

2) Baked products (chips, cookies, crackers, etc.)

The first thing I think about when I look at baked products is the oven situation. I cringe when I think of items baked in a shared oven with gluten-containing products. Many commercial environments use a convection oven, which by definition is designed to have good air flow. (Good air-flow is great for baking but not good for reducing contamination risk!) Before they get to the oven, there are numerous contact parts in machinery that pose potential contamination risk (this machinery risk also exists in non-baked products).

Check out Kinnickinick, a gluten-free manufacturer of baked goods, they put this cool video together to explain what they do to de-gluten (not a real word?) a machine they purchased. We’ve done similar things but we weren’t smart enough to video it and share it – next time! It’s great to see other companies being this diligent and sharing the info.

As you may see, there are several complex issues to review when considering eating a product that is produced in a shared facility. I urge you to proceed with caution and use discretion – if you aren’t sure you probably should not eat it. The more severe your intolerance or celiac disease, the more you should avoid products with this type of label.

A personal example: Doritos were a guilty pleasure in my gluten-filled days, they remind me of childhood. Doritos actually do not contain gluten, but, they are made on shared equipment with wheat and Frito-lay fully discloses this – they do NOT claim Doritos to be GF. When I learned they had “no gluten ingredients” several years ago, I just had to try them..only to feel awful. Don’t make the same mistake!

FYI, here is the list of GF/non-GF products from Frito-Lay:

The GFB proudly maintains a dedicated gluten-free environment and is certified gluten-free through the GFCO


Disclaimer: We are a food manufacturer and as an individual with celiac disease, I am extremely interested in safe food manufacturing, especially as it relates to gluten contamination. That said, I do not pretend to be a food plant auditor nor have I visited every food production facility around – I’m just doing my best to bring common sense and quality information on subjects that can sometime be complex.

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