Many companies that market gluten-free foods already meet the standard. But Andrea Levario of the American Celiac Disease Alliance said the federal guidelines will cut down on painstaking shopping for those who suffer from celiac disease.
Levario said wheat must be labeled on food packages, but barley and rye are often hidden ingredients in food. The standard will also ensure companies can't label products "gluten-free" even if they are cross-contaminated from other products made in the same manufacturing facility. She said shopping can be like "playing Russian roulette" for people who have celiac.
"This will eliminate confusion for the consumer and will cut down on calls to companies to try and determine whether their products are safe and gluten-free," she said.
Michael Taylor, FDA deputy commissioner for foods, said the rule originally proposed during the George W. Bush administration was delayed, because the agency was evaluating what standard was correct.
"We wanted to do a careful scientific assessment of the data and the range of sensitivities," Taylor said.
Congress originally directed the FDA to set the standards in 2004 as part of a larger law that required food packaging to list major allergens. Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., originally introduced a bill calling for the standards in 1999. She praised the FDA rules and called them "a long time coming."
In the decade since Congress considered the standards, gluten-free foods have become big business. Millions of people are buying the foods because they say they make them feel better, even if they don't have celiac disease. Americans spent more than $4 billion on gluten-free foods last year, according to the American Celiac Disease Alliance, and a major manufacturing survey issued this week suggested the niche industry is giving an economic boost to the food industry overall.
One of the largest manufacturers of gluten-free foods, Boulder Brands, said it has been seeing double-digit growth in sales and is looking at expanding into bigger markets. The company's brands, Glutino and Udi's, already meet the new standards.
"We expect the new regulations to impact sales in a positive way as consumers can feel more confident in their gluten-free choices," said T.J. McIntyre, executive vice president of the company.