Gluten-Free Cheerios: Updated Position StatementTricia Thompson
Oats: Gluten Free Watchdog supports the use of gluten-free oats by the celiac disease community that are produced under a purity protocol. At this time we do not in general support the use of regular commodity oats that are cleaned at the “end” of production via mechanical and/or optical sorting. We are not necessarily opposed to the use of such oats in the future if their gluten-free status can be definitively demonstrated via a rigorous testing protocol.
Cheerios: The oats used in gluten-free Cheerios are cleaned via mechanical sorting; they are not currently grown under a purity protocol. Due to our continuing concerns about the testing protocol used by General Mills to determine the “safety” of gluten-free labeled Cheerios we cannot recommend this product to the celiac disease community at this time. We are specifically concerned about the apparent lack of follow-up testing on individual boxes of Cheerios when individual test results used to determine a lot mean* are at or above 20 ppm gluten.
- While General Mills told us they would be testing more individual boxes of Cheerios, they did not provide us with any information about what specifically would trigger additional testing.
- While General Mills told us they were interested in sourcing some oats from suppliers who follow a purity protocol, they advised us on August 27, 2015 that, “at this time you should not have any expectation that Cheerios will be moving to a purity protocol.”
- While General Mills does test oat grain, oat flour, and finished product Cheerios, we have not been provided with the testing protocols for oat grain and oat flour.
*How lot means are determined by General Mills: General Mills defines a “lot” as a 24-hour production cycle. To arrive at a lot mean, the following protocol is followed:
- Twelve to eighteen boxes of cereal are pulled during a production cycle
- The contents of each individual box are ground
- A sub-sample of ground product is taken from each box
- The sub-samples are composited—meaning they are combined
- The combined sub-samples are subject to additional grinding
- Twelve extractions are taken from this combined, ground sample
- Extractions are tested using the Ridascreen Fast Gliadin (R7002) and cocktail extraction solution
- On August 25, 2015 General Mills advised us that, “… all the lots of Yellow Box Cheerios are testing below 15 ppm. Lots of the other Gluten Free Cheerios products are testing below 10 ppm.”
Recommendation: In the opinion of Gluten Free Watchdog, if test results on a composite sample of 12 to 18 boxes of Cheerios include any values at or above 20 ppm of gluten, General Mills should explore the reason for these findings via testing of the individual boxes of Cheerios used in the composite. A result at or above 20 ppm should not be discounted as simply a random hot spot (e.g., due to an errant small fleck of barley) just because the lot mean is below 20 ppm of gluten. While it is our expectation based on the totality of testing data shared with us as well as our own independent testing that the majority of boxes of cereal are gluten-free (as defined by FDA), additional testing precautions should be taken to ensure that no boxes of Cheerios are contaminated with barley at levels at or above 20 ppm of gluten (apparently the most problematic grain when it comes to mechanically “cleaning” oats is barley). Because General Mills has their own lab—Medallion Labs—it should be relatively easy to implement testing of individual boxes of Cheerios to supplement their lot mean testing protocol.
- General Mills has not shared updated extraction values for lot means. Providing the range (i.e., low value to high value) of extraction values per lot would be useful. During my visit to General Mills in mid July, results from randomly pulled data sheets for yellow box Cheerios from the gluten-free validation period were shared (these Cheerios did not go into boxes labeled gluten-free). The vast majority of extractions from these data sheets were under 20 ppm (many were below the lower limit of quantification of 10 ppm); some extractions were above 20 ppm (one extraction from one of the lots was above 90 ppm).
Reports of illness: Of late, there are many reports on social media of people becoming sick after eating gluten-free labeled Cheerios. In fairness, there are reasons why people might be having gastrointestinal symptoms that have nothing to do with gluten contamination. These reasons may include an increase in fiber intake due to overzealous Cheerios consumption or an inability to tolerate oats especially if this is the first time oats have been added to the diet since a diagnosis of celiac disease. Regardless, General Mills should take seriously each and every report of adverse reactions to gluten-free labeled Cheerios.
- Investigating consumer complaints about Cheerios should be placed in the exceedingly capable hands of General Mills’ registered dietitian nutritionists who are very familiar with issues related to oat consumption in the celiac disease community.
Additional testing of Cheerios: At Gluten Free Watchdog we will continue to test Cheerios. Results to date are available HERE.
Reporting a possible negative reaction to gluten-free labeled Cheerios: If you feel you may have become sick from eating gluten-free labeled Cheerios, please do the following:
- Save the box, even if it is empty–it contains important information such as lot number and UPC code.
- Contact Cheerios (1-800-248-7310) and provide them with specific information–variety of Cheerios eaten, lot number, when you ate the product, symptoms, whether you regularly tolerate gluten-free oats, etc.
- Contact the FDA Consumer Complaint Coordinator in your area http://www.fda.gov/Safety/ReportaProblem/ConsumerComplaintCoordinators/. They will ask you to file a formal complaint that includes providing information about the specific product and your specific response.
- If you have been diagnosed with celiac disease and this is your first time eating an oat product, contact your gastroenterologist and dietitian.
- If you regularly tolerate gluten-free oats, also notify your doctor and dietitian.
- If you need any help with this process or feel you are not being listened to, please contact Gluten Free Watchdog.
© Copyright September 1, 2015 by Tricia Thompson, MS, RD for Gluten Free Watchdog. All Rights Reserved.