While the FDA and USDA continue to drag their heels on defining gluten-free—yet continue to permit unregulated gluten-free labeling—organic certifier Quality Assurance International (QAI) and the nonprofit National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA) have stepped into the gap. This week, the QAI and NFCA partnership unveiled its new "certified gluten free" seal.

Currently, gluten-related label claims on foods and other products range from “no gluten ingredients used” to “free of gluten”, “without gluten,” “no gluten,” “made in a gluten-free facility,” and more. No wonder consumers (and manufacturers) are confused—but that hasn’t stopped gluten-free sales from reaching $3.2 billion, with no slowdown in sight, according to Nutrition Business Journal.

In 2008, the FDA issued a proposed gluten-free regulation but hasn’t finalized it. (Note to our elected officials: Canada just beefed up their labeling regulations.) Meanwhile, independent agencies like the Gluten Intolerance Group and the Celiac Sprue Association worked hard and fast to put label certifications in place.

Now, the new QAI and NFCA seal combines the hefty reputations of organic certifier QAI with the grassroots strength of NFCA. “We knew that NFCA was such a steward when it comes to consumer advocacy,” says Jaclyn Bowen, QAI general manager. “NFCA has been around a long time, working with consumers on education, outreach, and advocacy. Gluten free was one of those things QAI was thinking about, so it seemed like a great combination of expertise—their experience with gluten free and ours with testing, inspection, and certification.”

What makes the QAI certified gluten free label unique?

One advantage of the QAI/NCFA certification process: QAI can offer “bundled” certifications, combining gluten-free testing with other QAI programs, such as organic, eco-social, and non-GMO.

“The main difference between this seal and other gluten-free seals is the foundation on which this program was formed,” says Bowen. “QAI’s parent is NSF International, which has a 66-year legacy of food safety and certification programs, including organic. It’s what they do every day—looking at labels, looking at formulations, auditing and making sure integrity is maintained by preventing commingling and contamination—it’s about how to keep something that’s organic, organic. So we brought those same truths to the gluten-free side: If you’ve got gluten-free, how to keep it gluten free.”

The seal includes a stringent auditing and application review process, including onsite inspection and testing to ensure compliance to 10 parts per million or less (more strict than the 20 ppm recommended by the FDA).

Why certified gluten free labels matter

Slapping your own house-made label (“now gluten-free!) on your product isn’t technically illegal. (Witness the Paul Seelig case this year.) But it’s wrong, and it’s dangerous because gluten free isn’t a fad; it’s a public health issue for millions of people, and likely millions more who haven’t yet been diagnosed.

In the absence of FDA leadership, the onus falls on independent agencies to establish and educate the public about gluten-free guidelines – and on manufacturers to commit time and money toward earning a reputable seal for their product. With a certified gluten-free label, consumers gain peace of mind, while sellers gain customer confidence.

Meanwhile, gluten-free labeling advocates continue to beat the drums. “Guerilla marketing is an awesome tactic,” says Alice Bast, founder and president of NFCA. “We’ve been working for years, going to meetings, waiting for FDA labeling. I’ve been talking to everyone, trying to get some answers.It’s really imperative that [people with gluten intolerance or celiac] understand and have confidence that the food we’re eating is indeed gluten free.”