TTB Rules on Gluten-Free Beer: No Wheat, Barley, or Rye

On May 24th, Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), which regulates the US beer production and sales, issued an “interim” ruling on labeling alcoholic beverages in regards to their gluten content. The TTB stated they will “not allow products made from ingredients that contain gluten to be labeled as “gluten-free.” This means that beer brewed from barley, wheat, or rye cannot be labeled as gluten-free, even if the gluten content is below the WHO’s recommended 20 ppm.

TBB Acts Because FDA Lacks Clear Ruling on Gluten-free Labeling

In our post on gluten-free regulation, we discussed the FDA’s lack of a set definition of “gluten-free food.” The FDA has been regulating gluten-free beers since 2009 and it has been taking comments on a proposed ruling for even longer. Their ruling states that gluten-free foods must contain none of the following:

  • An ingredient that is a prohibited grain (wheat, rye, barley, or hybrids of the three)
  • An ingredient that is derived from a prohibited grain and that has not been processed to remove gluten (eg, wheat flour)
  • An ingredient that is derived from a prohibited grain and that has been processed to remove gluten, if the use of that ingredient results in the presence of 20 parts per million (ppm) or more gluten in the food (eg, wheat starch)
  • 20 ppm or more gluten

If this ruling passes, it would prevent any food made from “prohibited” grains (wheat, rye, or barley) from being labeled gluten-free, unless the food was made from ingredients processed to bring the gluten content down to 20 ppm. As we’ve discussed, this proposed ruling stems from uncertainty regarding safe levels of gluten and questionable testing accuracy (for more information, read our post on the safety of beer brewed from barley).

The Impact of the Ruling on “Gluten-free” Beer

The proposed FDA ruling would block all barley-based beer from calling itself “gluten-free” on the label, which is exactly what the TTB has done, temporarily. Certain types of gluten-free beer are made from barley, then processed to remove the gluten. This means they are made directly from a prohibited grains, which violates the FDA’s second point above.

Further complicating the matter is the fact that there no test for accurately determining gluten levels in beer. Because beer is fermented, and because the proteins can undergo hydrolysis during the brewing process, and because the common tests for gluten don’t accurately measure the family of gluten found in beer, it is currently impossible to be 100% certain of the gluten content of beer made from barley. In their ruling, the TTB references an FDA notice stating:

“…For some food matrices (e.g., fermented or hydrolyzed foods), there are no currently available validated methods that can be used to accurately determine if these foods contain <20 ppm gluten. In such cases, FDA is considering whether to require manufacturers of such foods to have a scientifically valid method that will reliably and consistently detect gluten at 20 ppm or less before including a “gluten-free” claim in the labeling of their foods.”

In other words, manufacturers who want to use any of the prohibited grains may be required to produce an accurate test that the FDA considers reliable and repeatable before they can call their beer “gluten-free.”

TTB Awaits Further Notice

The TTB ruling is “interim” because they’re waiting on the FDA. The TTB is being conservative, and doesn’t want to act until they have more information. The question now is whether the FDA will pass its proposed ruling and put the issue to rest, or ease back their requirements, which could put celiacs at risk.

What do you think about the TTB’s ruling? How long should it wait for the FDA to take action? Let us know by posting a comment below.