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Should being gluten free impact your politics?

24 Oct

The election is right around the corner! Make sure your vote is an informed one!

Although the issue of food policy was under highlighted in the Presidential debates, it is nonetheless of political importance. From the farm bill, which impacts the cost and availability of food, to USDA public health promotional campaigns, to FDA food regulations, there are many avenues US leadership can take to change the way we access food in this country.

So what are the issues that a savvy Celiac should consider before casting their vote? The farm bill, food safety programs and access to and promotion of nutritional foods are the key issues that I want to explore so that I can make an informed decision at the polls.

This post is not an endorsement of either candidate.

FARM BILL

The farm bill impacts a population much broader than US farmers. When (or should I say if?) the farm bill is passed it will impact the cost of food as well as our access to certain foods. The next President will not only have to deal with getting the farm bill passed but will also play a role in shaping it.

As someone who is gluten free, the availability of gluten free food is a very important issue. Since gluten free foods tend to be more expensive than products made with wheat flour it would be in our best interest to support policies that make farming more economical, especially for small farmers. Here is the catch: the farm bill attempts to support all farmers, making all food more accessible and affordable. Cheaper brown rice would be great but if wheat flour is also made more accessible and even more affordable than it already is we are likely to see some unintended consequences.

If wheat flour is made more expensive don’t you think that restaurants might think twice about dredging their meats in flour? They might consider using an alternative like cornmeal or rice flour. Cost and accessibility shape our food options both at the market and when dining out.

The President has repeatedly articulated the importance of passing a farm bill this year. He calls for adequate protection of American farmers from draught and natural disasters and promotes diverse, specialty crops like fruits, nuts and veggies (which is great for us!).

Romney has taken jabs at Obama during the campaign about his failure to get the House the pass the bill. Romney thinks that Obama does not have the leadership skills necessary to get a bill passed. He argued that “[P]eople have been waiting a long time for a farm bill. And the president has to exert the kind of presidential leadership it takes to get the House and the Senate together and actually pass a farm bill.”

Romney supports disaster relief as well but also indirectly supports subsidizing American farmers. Romney says that other nations subsidize their farmers and if the US is to compete we will need to do the same.

When you get down into the nitty-gritty of both candidates’ farm bill positions there are more similarities than differences. Both candidates will cut about $30 billion out of agricultural spending by eliminating many of the subsidies that currently go to crop insurance companies. Much of the farm bill is allocated towards food stamps. Here lies the biggest difference between an Obama supported farm bill and a Romney supported bill: Romney/Ryan support decreasing the amount of people using food stamps. They said that they don’t need to cut the program to reach their goal. Romney said, “I want to make sure we get people off food stamps, not by cutting the program but by getting them good jobs.”

FOOD SAFETY

President Obama created several programs that promote food safety. He established the Food Safety Working Group, which is a group that focuses on updating and improving US food safety systems. Obama also increased the authority of the FDA so they can more effectively enforce food safety regulations.

Although Romney believes in the importance of access to safe foods his approach to securing such food is very different from Obama’s approach.

Romney supports a more hands off approach to preventing food-borne illnesses. He argues that “preventative practices” are the best way to prevent outbreaks. These practices/protocol would be developed by the private sector because Romney believes that the people in the fields are the best equipped to handle this issue. Romney’s campaign states that it is most cost efficient and effective to allow food growers, handlers and processors to create food safety protocol. As for the role of the FDA, Romney’s campaign said that the Romney Administration would prioritize collaboration between the FDA and the private farm sector on this issue.

NUTRITION

The Obama family is very committed to promoting healthful food choices in schools and encouraging people of all ages to lead active lifestyles. Michelle Obama worked to get more salad bars into schools, President Obama supported the USDA’s new food pyramid, MyPlate as well as their Fresh Fruit and Vegetables Snack Program and both of the Obamas encourage cities to get involved with the Let’s Move! program which provides local towns and cities with tools to get community members exercising. President Obama believes that partnering with the private sector and supporting federal programs to promote healthful lifestyles is the best way to improve the health of the public.

Romney does not support nanny-laws and is committed to making sure the federal government does not overstep its role in American lives. These beliefs about the role of the government shape Romney’s strategies for tackling public health.

In response to questions about promoting nutrition the Romney campaign gave a quick and short response:

“The federal government should not dictate what every American eats… An emphasis on a balanced diet will be crucial to addressing this crisis and public health programs in a Romney Administration will highlight the importance of healthy eating.”

Romney and his campaign have not articulated a plan nor a specific commitment to promoting nutrition and healthful lifestyle choices.

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Now that we know where each candidate stands on these issues the next question is “Does it matter?” As someone who studied Public Health it greatly matters to me but this post isn’t about public health (in general) it is about whether or not being gluten free should impact the way you vote.

The answer is: probably not. The gluten free diet, though more popular and well-known than ever before, is far from the norm. A farm bill that cuts the profitability of wheat farmers is not going to change the fact that people love their gluten. It is an ingredient that has dominated palates across continents. Although I do believe it is important for voters to take the issues I described above into consideration when casting their vote, I do not think that our gluten free fate is in the hands of the future President.

Ultimately, it comes down to constant vigilance, commitment and willingness to speak up for your needs. There is no quick-fix solution to the lack of awareness about gluten intolerance, Celiacs and food allergies in this country but every time you explain it to a waiter at a local restaurant or to a new acquaintance you are making a difference. It isn’t just about being gluten free! I am talking about spreading awareness about restricted diets and cross contamination, issues that make the lives of millions so challenging in the US. Not many people can say that when they dine out they help change the world but we can.

-CC

Sources

http://www.unitedfresh.org/programs/wppc/presidential_nominees_responses

http://articles.aberdeennews.com/2012-08-24/farmforum/33373582_1_farm-bill-programs-that-benefit-farmers-farm-safety

http://cornandsoybeandigest.com/issues/obama-romney-weigh-more-agriculture-priorities

http://insidetrade.com/Inside-Trade-General/Public-Content-World-Trade-Online/romney-hits-obama-on-farm-bill-gridlock-reiterates-trade-policy-plans/menu-id-896.html?S=SM

The Domino’s Effect

10 May

A Little Bit of History

Domino’s Pizza was founded in 1960 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Today, it is the second-largest pizza chain in the United States (second to Pizza Hut) and has more than 9,000 established franchised stores in the world. An incorporation with a successful foothold in 60 countries has a lot of power over the pizza industry’s reputation and the expectations of consumers with respect to the quality of service that a reputable pizza store should meet.

Domino’s has a history of being the first of its industry to adapt certain unique marketing techniques. For example, in 1973 Domino’s started advertising their 30-minute guarantee to customers. If Domino’s couldn’t deliver the pizza within 30 minutes of ordering, your pizza was free. In the 1980s the offer went from a free pizza to $3 off due to liability issues. Consumers began to speak out about the dangers of the 30-minute guarantee, expressing that it caused the delivery people to engage in unsafe driving. Eventually the 30-minute guarantee advertising campaign was dropped due to political and legal pressures.

What does this history have to do with the new gluten-free pizza crust?  Domino’s has a history of being pizza pioneers when it comes to advertising.  Ironically, the marketing campaigns employed by Domino’s seem to have a domino effect: once Domino’s does it, all of the other chains begin to follow suit.  If history is to repeat itself, I wouldn’t be surprised if more pizza chains not only start offering gluten-free crusts but also follow Domino’s lead with regard to how they offer this new product.

Domino’s Gluten Free Pizza

As most people in the GF and celiac community know, Domino’s started offering a gluten-free pizza crust on May 7, 2012.  Ironically announced during Celiac Awareness Month, the company explicitly stated that this gluten-free pizza is not designed for people with celiac disease.  The pizza crust, in a vacuum, is gluten-free.  What is the catch? Domino’s hasn’t taken any of the necessary precautions to prevent cross-contamination.  In fact, on their website they state “While the Gluten-Free Crust is certified to be free of gluten, the pizza made with the Gluten-Free Crust use the same ingredients and utensils as all of our other pizzas.”

Here is a video that Domino’s made to help get the word out about their new product.

Their advertisement for gluten-free crust starts off by saying “Because we are honest people, here is a disclaimer.”  For the record, a more accurate beginning to their disclaimer would state “Because we are lazy people, here is a disclaimer.” It would simply take a bit more education, training and effort to provide a fairly safe gluten-free option.  At the end of the video ad you hear the narrator saying “Ok, enough already with the disclaimers we are really excited to tell you about our new gluten-free crust…”  Not only is the crust not actually gluten-free but Domino’s goes so far as to dismiss their disclaimer as if it is an irrelevant formality

Issue #1: Gluten Free Labeling Laws

The FDA is close to formally establishing the legal requirements necessary to label a product as gluten free.  Despite being on the books as an issue needing regulation for several years, the FDA has failed to respond to public pressure until now. The FDA only regulates food products but I wonder why the government recognizes that products should be regulated for the gluten-free status but not restaurants that offer similar products.

Government entities like the USDA and FDA protect the US population by regulating highly distributed, manufactured and agricultural food products.  This is important to prevent public health catastrophes related to contaminated food products.

In general, it would not make sense to allocate government resources for regulating restaurants on a federal level because, in the past, if a restaurant had contaminated products or unsafe practices it wouldn’t affect enough people for it to be considered a federal issue. Unfortunately, in the world of chains and franchises, the idea that restaurants only impact their immediate surroundings is no longer true.

In this context we are talking about a pizza company that is located in every single state in this country with over 5,000 individual restaurant locations.  The kitchen ingredients used by Domino’s can affect a large part of the US population and, more relevantly, their institutionalized kitchen protocol can affect people on a population level as well.

If Domino’s wants to offer a gluten free crust they should be subject to some form of regulation since their product is so wide-reaching.  If Domino’s had a kitchen protocol that had all their chains set the ovens to a temperature that consistently undercooked meat, resulting in food poisoning, we would have a national health crisis on our hands.  I don’t know why we are turning a blind eye when it comes to gluten free protocol in the kitchen.

Furthermore, calling their pizza “gluten free” should be considered false advertisement, if not fraud. Their appeal to the gluten free market is abhorrent.  The gluten-free market base is depression-proof and has been consistently and substantially growing for the past 10 years.  You should not be able to con your way into this market. If you take a chicken breast and dredge it lightly in flour before frying it, is this entree gluten free? NO. Is the chicken breast itself gluten free? YES. Similarly, if you have a gluten free pizza crust it is no longer gluten free if you cross-contaminate by preparing it in an environment covered in gluten-based flour (similar to a light dredging, if you will).

Issue #2 Corporate Precent

One of the main reasons that I find Domino’s actions completely unacceptable is because of, what I am calling, corporate precedent.  California Pizza Kitchen started offering a gluten free pizza crust before doing their homework.  They developed a crust but did not research cross-contamination protocol.  As a result, customers complained.  Did CPK slap a disclaimer on their menu and call it a day? No.  CPK pulled the pizza from their menu and started working with the Gluten Intolerance Group to develop a strategy to make their kitchen safe for gluten-free pizza cooking.  Domino’s justifies their lack of concern for cross-contamination by saying that the crust is for gluten intolerant or gluten sensitive consumers. Interestingly, although Domino’s argued that they are catering towards the gluten sensitive population, the Gluten Intolerance Group is the organization that stepped up to help CPK prevent cross contamination.  I really enjoyed this post by Linda who points out that, of all the gluten sensitive people she knows, none of them have “mild” senstiives” and they do not appreciate a contaminated pizza!

                                  

Domino’s has stated that they simply don’t have the kitchen capacity to make a truly gluten free pizza.  It seems reasonable that it might be hard to make a profit if they had to change their kitchen set up for this product.  Then I remember PF Changs, a nationally represented corporate restaurant chain that has successfully created a gluten free menu and has changed their kitchen set up to accommodate safe food preparation.

Before Domino’s the precedents set by various corporations trying to go gluten free have been in favor of trying to prevent cross-contamination. I fear for the gluten free future of the restaurant industry now that such a large and financially successful  company has started saying that it is ok to take the easy way out.

The Bigger Picture

Supply and demand: a fundamental concept in economics.  If consumers demand a certain product, the market will supply it. What happens when the supply and demand get muddled and confused?  Poor products. In response to perceived consumer demands restaurants and food companies are responding by creating “gluten-free” products.  The problem is that the market is not understanding the true nature of the current demand.

Supply is not the issue right now.  There are so many gluten free products on the market.  If current product supply were the issue I would pick up some frozen pizza crusts at Whole Foods, go to Domino’s and ask them to heat it up for me.  What is in need, the demand, is education and awareness.  I don’t need Domino’s to create and produce a tasty recipe for a pizza crust. Udi’s, among other companies, has awesome pizza crust already. What we need is a safe place to dine out 

Empowerment

I want to remind my readers that CPK stopped offering their gluten free pizza until they could establish a safe kitchen environment in response to a letter by a customer.  If you want Domino’s to take accountability then send them a letter (or write them an email) explaining why taking the gluten-free pizza one step further could make a huge difference in your life and in the lives of many other people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.

Here is their mailing address:

Domino’s Pizza LLC
30 Frank Lloyd Wright Drive
Ann Arbor, MI 48106
(734) 930-3030

 

Check out my posts on the importance of writing letters and letter writing tips for advice.

Ultimately, if we want to change the market then we need to change the nature and clarity of our “demand.” The first step to this change? Advocate for yourself.
A note about NFCA

Check out their letter from Alice Bast discussing their involvement with Domino’s Pizza.  NFCA has taken a lot of heat for seemingly endorsing Domino’s.  Domino’s reached out to NFCA to consult about their new gluten free product.  NFCA informed Domino’s that the pizza is not safe for Celiacs and reviewed their ingredient lists and kitchen practices to draw this conclusion.  Although the Amber designation is fairly controversial, it is better than Domino’s advertising their pizza as gluten free without a disclaimer.  Check out this post by Linda from theglutenfreehomemaker.com  about why the amber designation may be a huge step back for the Celiac Community. Without NFCA Domino’s might have simply not let consumers know about the serious cross contamination risks.

-CC
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