'That's why people keep getting sick'
Chef Spencer Clements, who runs gluten-free cooking workshops, says misleading labels can be dangerous for those with food allergies.
Australian food manufacturers and suppliers are pushing to increase the amount of gluten allowed in so-called ''gluten-free'' foods on which thousands of people with digestive problems rely.
The Australian Food and Grocery Council is preparing to ask Food Standards Australia New Zealand to relax its current standard, which states there must be no detectable gluten in foods labelled ''gluten-free''.
The lobby group instead wants such foods to be able to contain up to 20 milligrams of gluten per kilogram, which would bring Australia in line with British and European standards.
A confidential survey by AFGC of 98 businesses that either manufacture ''gluten-free'' foods or supply them found nearly 80 per cent think the new standard would cut down manufacturing plant costs, including gluten testing costs, and make it easier to source products from overseas.
The push for a new gluten limit has received mixed views from dietitians, who say Australians with coeliac disease and an associated condition, dermatitis herpetiformis, rely on gluten-free foods.
Coeliac disease causes the immune system to react abnormally to gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and oats, and causes inflammation in the lining of the bowel. The condition, which Coeliac Australia says affects about one in 100 Australians, can cause diarrhoea, constipation, vomiting and vitamin and mineral deficiencies. It also increases the risk of certain cancers, including lymphoma and bowel cancer.
Melbourne dietitian Georgie Rist said people who are currently eating products with no detectable amounts of gluten could experience changes if they were to suddenly start consuming higher amounts.
''This may create fear and confusion amongst the population and could drive individuals to consume less packaged foods and more whole foods from core food groups which are naturally free from gluten,'' she said.
Dr Sue Shepherd, another dietitian who specialises in food intolerances and gastrointestinal nutrition, said Australia had to rethink its current rule because tests were becoming so sensitive that many of the foods currently meeting the ''undetectable gluten'' standard would soon fail it.
Dr Shepherd, who also directs a gluten-free food company, said overwhelming scientific evidence showed traces of gluten below 20 milligrams were not harmful to people with coeliac disease. ''Combined studies show there is no damage,'' she said.
But not everyone in the industry is pushing for the change.
Michael Bracka, the chief executive of Freedom Foods and former boss of Kellogg Australia, opposes any changes to labelling standards for gluten-free foods. He said changes to the regulations could see cheap overseas imports flood the Australian market and damage a very successful local industry.
''This is not just about consumer honesty and the future of the Australian food manufacturing industry, it is also a health issue. The changes as put by the AFGC are plainly misleading to consumers. We have great concerns and have lobbied the AFGC to tell them we strongly reject the proposal to change the current regulations and testing requirements.''
Jacqueline Black, a student dietitian with coeliac disease, said if the Australian regulator was to change its position, she hoped it would come with strict oversight to ensure more gluten did not creep into ''gluten-free'' foods.
''One small amount puts me at higher risk of cancer, so I don't want to be putting myself in danger,'' she said.
A spokeswoman for Food Standards said it was working with AFGC on its application and stakeholders would be consulted.