By Betsy Craig
Even little kids know that green means go and red means stop. Drivers in a hurry know that the yellow light can be open to interpretation.
In a rush to extend its message within the restaurant industry, the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness last month expanded its Gluten-Free Resource Education Awareness Training, or GREAT Kitchens, program. The new two-tiered credentialing system was supposed to help diners with gluten-related disorders sort through the exploding number of eateries claiming "gluten-free" menu items. However, the voluntary designations have created more confusion, not less.
Under NFCA's Green Designation, restaurant operators must verify that their ingredients are gluten-free, the staff must complete comprehensive training, and the kitchen has to institute — and follow — strict protocols to prevent cross-contamination. That makes the establishment "celiac friendly," and we can all use more friends.
But with friends holding the Amber Designation, celiacs don't need enemies. To display the Amber seal, which looks just like the Green seal, restaurants must verify ingredients are gluten-free, but managers and servers receive only basic training on how to communicate to customers that "kitchen practices may vary widely." There is no guarantee that an item made with GF ingredients won't pick up a dose of gluten from shared utensils or work surfaces before it reaches the table, and we know that minute amounts of gluten can trigger internal damage in celiacs, whether they experience symptoms or not.
Even NFCA urges "those with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity to exercise judgment when dining at an establishment with an Amber Designation."
So, why bother?
This question has been swirling around the gluten-free community since the designations were announced. The issue came to a head last week when the Domino's Pizza chain launched its new gluten-free pizza crust with an Amber Designation.
NFCA's Executive Director Alice Bast defended the move in an interview with Jules Shepard on the Gluten Free Voice podcast May 10, saying that it brings the issue to the forefront — and Domino's had been planning to start selling its crust without any disclaimer at all. Now it states on its website that while the "National Foundation for Celiac Awareness supports the availability of Domino's Gluten Free Crust it CANNOT recommend the pizza for customers with celiac disease."
In an open letter to Bast dated May 12, Gluten Intolerance Group Executive Cynthia Kupper wrote: "I believe it would have been better for NFCA to tell Domino's that the cross-contamination of the gluten-free crust is too great and that NFCA cannot endorse such as product as gluten-free. Why would NFCA work to raise awareness of cross contamination by endorsing a cross-contaminated product?"
I applaud the NFCA's goal of making dining out safer for those with gluten sensitivity, but in practice the Amber Designation just provides marketing cover for restaurants that want to exploit the latest "celebrity diet fad" without understanding the real medical harm they can do. It's like someone with an online health-care degree offering to do brain surgery. No thanks.
NFCA should not be enabling such dangerous practices, even to motivate every restaurant in the country to do gluten-free right. Given what's at stake, the organization should drop the confusing Amber Designation immediately.
Restaurants that want to offer all patrons safe dining options should invest not only in staff training but in the rigorous systems required in both the front and the back of the house. It can be done. Chuck E. Cheese is experimenting with a gluten-free pizza delivered, baked and served in plastic that is unwrapped by the diner at the table. No cross-contamination there.
There are comprehensive programs for operators who are serious about keeping their gluten-free items gluten-free all the way to the takeout box (disclaimer: My AllerTrain classes are among them). These programs have been attended by high-level executives from some of the biggest chains in the nation. They have made the commitment to modify their operations where needed.
But if you think that's too expensive, don't just slap a label on your menu and think diners won't know the difference.
As the great philosopher Jedi Master Yoda once said, "Do or do not do. There is no try."
Betsy Craig brings 20 years of food service industry experience to MenuTrinfo LLC, a menu nutritional labeling company. She also recently created a new company, Kitchens with Confidence LLC.
Photo provided by JMacPherson.