Going Gluten-FreeJuly 27, 2011

People Power: We Can Make a Difference in the Gluten-Free Marketplace

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.

Comments (9)

As a person who teaches gluten sensitivity to doctors, I am encouraged by the level of understanding represented by the comments on these pages. One can only hope that one day your family doctor, restaurant owner, state and federal congress people and your family and friends will understand what a menace gluten can be to your health and theirs too.

Posted by: Daniel S | August 1, 2011 8:27 AM    Report this comment

Haven't been Celiac all that long, but I've found that the best way to get a gluten free meal is to go to the best restaurants. A top notch restaurant makes food to order and can make the changes necessary. They usually aren't chains and have to depend on their reputation to get customers, so they take the time to ensure that food is prepared correctly. This generally means no gluten free menu, but a discussion between server or manager and the kitchen regarding what can be prepared gluten free. Unfortunately, this also generally means a pretty expensive meal, but I've found that I'd rather eat out much less often and get a really awesome, safe, albeit expensive, meal. I've pretty much given up on the chains - they are not doing anywhere near enough to educate their kitchen staff on what gluten free really means.

Posted by: Catherine S | July 31, 2011 7:55 AM    Report this comment

On our yearly vacation to Ocean City, NJ, we encountered a small taco stand on the boardwalk whose entire menu is gluten free as the owner is a celiac, Pure Tacos (www.puretacos.com). It's the first time I've truly not been nervous about eating out. Out of the two weeks we were on vacation we ate there probably about a dozen times. It was super delicious!! I wish there were more places like this!

Posted by: ctouey | July 29, 2011 2:25 PM    Report this comment

It's interesting this is coming to light right now. Earlier this week I was in communication with a local pizza place that recently started offering GF pizzas. Pizza places scare me more me due to the high cross contamination risk factor. Since I run a celiac/gluten-free support group, I decided to ask "a few" questions about their GF pizzas.

The owner was open and honest about the environment of their fast paced kitchen. I won't go into the details, but needless to say their procedures were lacking in key areas. I pointed out the problem areas and explained the reasons why. To the owner's credit, he was open to my suggestions and said they are learning as much as they can about it. Instead of chastising the owner, I would rather become part of the solution, not part of the problem. I offered help him in whatever way I could in order to try to make their GF pizzas a success.

FWIW, after my fact finding mission, I would not eat this restaurant's GF pizza, nor CPK's GF 'za - unless things would change.

I think many of us that seriously/strictly maintain a gluten-free lifestyle, want those in the food service industry to succeed at offering us safe, gluten-free meals. Restaurants need to know a few things:

Ultimately their success will depend on SAFELY providing the gluten-free community menu options. This will require research and education on their part. It's not something that can be done half-way, it must be done correctly.

The GF community is HIGHLY connected/networked. News [both good and bad] spreads like wildfire. This can be a double-edge sword. If things are done correctly, the restaurant will reap the rewards for putting forth the effort. The GF community is extremely loyal - "you do right by us, we'll do right by you - again and again". If it goes wrong, well, it won't be pretty...

Thanks for sharing this info!!

Al

Posted by: aklap | July 28, 2011 7:05 PM    Report this comment

Hi: I was on vacation in the U.S. this last week (I'm Canadian). I was very scared of eating at any restauarants. Have had some experiences as listed above. I was very happy when I stayed at a Holiday Inn & when I explained I was Celiac the chef bent over backwards to ensure my food was gluten free. I wish I could say the same for a large catering function that I attended & all I received was a Grilled Chicken breast & vegetables -- no roll, potato or dessert. I was very disappointed. I was surprised when I enquired why I couldn't have a fruit cup & was told that they had too many people to feed & couldn't accomodate me. I wonder how many more people left starving?? I agree that we Celiacs really have to advocate for ourselves & others & educate those people who are serving us. I honestly think that companies do NOT educate their staff as to allergies & their consequences. I hope our many voices can & will change things for the better.

Posted by: Betty Ann P | July 28, 2011 2:17 PM    Report this comment

I'm not Celiac but my NCGS/Gluten Ataxia/Wheat Allergy symptoms are so severe that I'm more sensitive than some of my Celiac acquaintances. I refuse to eat out since being diagnosed nearly 4 years ago. It's just too risky for me when I walk into Panera or bakery dept and react to the flour dust in the air. My spouse is also NCGS but not as sensitive as me. Even places like Pizza Fusion that do practice good isolation techniques, is off limits as they're too far away, not enough outlets nationwide.

Most of the restaurants that claim to provide GF menus still have A LOT of soy in their foods. Both my spouse and I are Soy intolerant/allergic. So we have to plan ahead if we travel, carry food, find health food stores, make sure we have access to prepare food where we stay and I take cleaning wipes to make sure the microwave is safe.

Posted by: SalmonNationWoman | July 28, 2011 1:05 PM    Report this comment

Sadly, dining out safely is still the responsibility of the diner. As a 20+ year Celiac that has traveled the globe for business and pleasure, I've learned how to best handle most situations to dine safely. Stateside, given the FDA's lack of definition and regulation on 'gluten free', food service is free to jump on the bandwagon of serving gluten free products without taking the necessary steps to safely serve the gluten free diner.

I was delighted to see CPK's menu offer many 'gluten free' items. However, after asking similar questions as noted above, I also learned that the only thing I could safely eat was the salad without croutons or dressing. BTW, I did sample their gluten free pizza. I found the crust to be pretty terrible and not worth the risk of taking a gluten hit.

Further, I also found gluten free awareness and safe handling practices to be lacking at other chains that offer gluten free on their menu. I have written many articles and blogs about this and other gluten related topics. Thanks, Living Without and all you readers, for all that you do for gluten awareness!!

Posted by: sharna k | July 28, 2011 12:25 PM    Report this comment

Thanks very much for pointing out this important issue - cooking and serving truly gluten free is a lot more challenging to the restaurant business than the average restaurant owner realizes. While I am gluten sensitive and choose to avoid gluten whenever possible, I'm not suffering from Celiac, and would still frequent a restaurant like CPK if there was one near me. However, I think that restaurant owners who wish to respond to the growing desire for gluten free meals really educate themselves. And, we should do all we can to educate our local restauranteur by sharing information so that they can really provide their community with gluten free alternatives.

Posted by: Kathy K | July 28, 2011 11:49 AM    Report this comment

Olive Garden as well says that they will serve you gluten free pasta, however; when I asked the server, I found out that the pasta was cooked in the same water that they cook the wheat pasta, thus contaminating it with gluten. As a gluten sensitive person, I think it's great that we seem to be having more gluten free options at restaurants, but they need to understand that for some it's not a fad, but a serious health crisis when one it exposed to gluten.

Posted by: CHRIS K | July 28, 2011 10:59 AM    Report this comment

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