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People Power: We Can Make a Difference in the Gluten-Free Marketplace
July 27, 2011
Here’s a true story (it’s not over yet) about the power of food-sensitive consumers if we speak with one voice.
There are many restaurants that claim to be gluten free in name only but, in fact, are not completely gluten free because their kitchen practices introduce opportunities for cross contamination. A recent example is California Pizza Kitchen (CPK).
With more than 265 locations in 30 states, CPK recently announced that it is offering gluten-free pizza. A resounding “Yippee!” came from gluten-free consumers everywhere, including me. But in the midst of all the cheering, we received a note from Jennifer F, a reader who said she asked her local CPK about the protocol they used to prevent cross contamination. (She has two celiac daughters and wanted to be sure CPK was safe before she took them there for pizza.) The staff informed her that, while they have a foil-lined sheet pan and a separate cutter for their gluten-free pizzas, they use the same sauces (including ladles), cheese, veggies and all other toppings that they use for their wheat pizzas. She explained that by doing that they were cross contaminating the pizza. They pointed to their disclaimer about incidental cross contamination, which they felt covered them. She explained that what they were doing was more than incidental cross contamination - it was inevitable.
Then Jennifer double-checked with “corporate.” The senior VP of culinary development told her they would not be changing their practices, saying, “I guess that CPK's gluten-free pizza is not meant for people with celiac disease but rather for people who just choose not to eat gluten.”
What kind of gluten-free are you? And how do we know when a restaurant’s gluten-free offerings are really, absolutely, positively gluten free? Sadly, there are no government regulations to make that distinction. And there are no guidelines for restaurants unless the company signs up for the voluntary Gluten-Free Restaurant Awareness Program and makes that commitment.
I called my own local CPK in Farmington, CT, and was told basically the same thing that Jennifer F. reported. The manager explained the aluminum foil and the separate pizza cutter. When I asked about cross contamination, he said, “To be honest with our customers, we work with a lot of flour here. We try to do as much as we can to be healthy for everyone but there is flour everywhere.”
Here’s the disclaimer on CPK’s website:
CPK’s menu is diverse and contains a wide variety of foods, many of which contain one of the eight major allergens: Crustacean shellfish, eggs, fish, milk, peanuts, soybeans, tree nuts or wheat. Ingredients or production methods used by our suppliers may change and there may be product differences among regional suppliers. Additionally, normal kitchen operations involve shared cooking and preparation areas and cross-contact with other foods may occur during production, or we may need to substitute ingredients in menu items. We are therefore unable to guarantee that any menu item is completely free from any particular allergen, and we assume no responsibility for guests with food allergies or sensitivities.
I dialed the Consumer Relations Office at CPK to discuss this further. CPK’s spokesperson reported they’ve been getting a lot of feedback on Twitter, Facebook and by telephone. “We are aware of the problem and are working to address the issue and do it right,” she said, adding that she would get back to us with a statement and more details in the near future.
Our thanks to CPK for reconsidering its position. Hurray for speaking up and making our voices heard! This story isn’t over yet, but it’s moving in the right direction. We’ll keep you posted.