Whole Foods pulls "gluten-free" items
Whole Foods Market said Tuesday it has pulled three popular "gluten-free" products because the items contain the substance. The grocery chain also...
CHICAGO — Whole Foods Market said Tuesday it has pulled three popular "gluten-free" products because the items contain the substance.
The grocery chain also said it will devise a strict definition of "gluten-free" for products sold in its stores and begin monitoring the items so such problems do not recur.
The Chicago Tribune reported last month that its testing showed three Wellshire Kids brand "gluten-free" products sold exclusively at Whole Foods — Dinosaur Shapes Chicken Bites, Chicken Corn Dogs and Beef Corn Dogs — contained 116 to 2,200 parts per million (PPM) of gluten.
While the federal legal definition of "gluten-free" is imprecise, most experts view "gluten-free" as containing less than 20 ppm.
Gluten — a protein of wheat, rye or barley — can cause allergic reactions for those with wheat allergies and severe abdominal pain for those with celiac disease.
Whole Foods initially balked, saying it was the supplier's responsibility, not Whole Foods', to ensure the items were safe and legal.
But after about 20 consumer complaints or inquiries, including from those who thought "gluten-free" meant zero gluten, Whole Foods spokeswoman Libba Letton said the chain pulled the products nationwide. She could not say how many items or how many of its 279 stores were affected.
Peggy Pridemore, whose 4-year-old son with a known wheat allergy had a severe reaction after eating the chicken bites last December, said she welcomed Whole Foods' action but wished the chain had pulled the products weeks ago.
"It's shameful that it wasn't done sooner because they were knowingly putting customers in jeopardy," said Pridemore, of Hebron, Ky.
The gluten-free market has boomed in recent years as stores have sought to attract customers allergic to wheat; those with celiac disease; and parents of autistic children who believe a gluten-free diet can reduce symptoms. Whole Foods, for instance, offers store tours of its gluten-free products and operates a dedicated "Gluten-Free Bakehouse" in North Carolina.
The chain said it began pulling the three products about a month after the Tribune's Nov. 21 report. They were made by New Jersey-based Wellshire Farms, whose founder, Louis Colameco, said the family-owned company stopped making the items in June after discovering the batter coating the food contained gluten.
Still, Wellshire Farms continued to ship the products already in stock to Whole Foods, and the retailer continued to sell them.
He said his firm has found a new supplier that can guarantee less than 20 ppm of gluten. The newly formulated products should be back on shelves in a couple of months, he said.
Asked why he did not formally issue a recall, Colameco said the items do not violate any law and a recall might suggest an admission of guilt, opening him and the company to lawsuits.
The Wellshire Kids products aren't the only Wellshire items with gluten problems.
Colameco acknowledged that his firm manufactures products identical to the three Wellshire Kids items but sells them under a different brand name: Garrett County Farms. This brand, he said, is not sold at Whole Foods but mostly at health-food stores nationwide.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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