Achievements and accomplishments
From over 35 years of work
In the beginning there were
tough conditions for celiacs
In 1988 strict exclusion of gluten in your diet was extremely difficult. This was a consequence of the inadequate labeling of food. Something we today almost take for granted when shopping for groceries.
There was also a movement from the food industry to start using wheat protein in all kinds of food, for example in meat, ice cream, and candy. This is mainly for technological and economic reasons. Any ingredient that made up less than 25% of the whole food product could be omitted from the ingredient labels.
At this time the EU also was starting to form a single market that would allow goods to move freely between countries. Since food labeling laws were very different among the European countries, this could cause even greater problems for coeliacs to identify food that may contain gluten.
For this reason, Matilda Torralba from one of the Spanish coeliac societies, residing in Barcelona, wrote a letter in June 1988 calling for a European “come together meeting” for coeliac societies. In December that year, the Association of European Coeliac Societies (AOECS) was founded in Rome.
Since then, AOECS has been working to support all national coeliac societies in our quest to raise awareness and understanding of coeliac disease, to make it easier for people with this condition to find a great variety of safe and nutritious gluten-free food products.
AOECS function has for over three decades been the international voice representing not only the nearly 300 000 members of all 40 national member societies, but also everyone who needs to eat a gluten-free diet. Every day.
AOECS is founded by twelve coeliac societies from ten European countries (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Switzerland and the United Kingdom).
One of the association’s first achievements was to write a petition to the European Parliament. The petition stressed the importance for people suffering from coeliac disease to identify food that may contain gluten. The year after EU parliament confirmed that they had received the petition and forwarded it to the EU.
A big win for AOECS was when we received observer status in Codex Alimentarius Commission. This is an international organization tied to the United Nations that works to protect consumer health and promote fair practice in the food trade. They develop standards, guidelines, and codes of practice for the food industry.
Codex observers come from intergovernmental- and non-governmental organizations as well as public and private organizations. They all play a vital role in ensuring Codex committee’s suggestions are of the highest quality and give Codex legitimacy.
The background for this was a request from AOECS and the Austrian Coeliac Society the Austrian government to raise the subject of inadequate ingredient labeling of food at the Codex Alimentarius Commission session in Rome.
An investigation on this issue was initiated and AOECS contributed to this work. It ended up in a proposal from the Codex Committee on Nutrition and Foods for Special Dietary Uses that products that contain cereals with gluten should always be declared on labels.
This led to several discussions over the years on how to improve the Codex General Standard for the Labelling of Prepackaged Foods which was finally ratified in 1999.
A food industry research project on gluten-coating of fruit and vegetables was stopped because of common protests both from AOECS and different national coeliac societies.
The EU is considering permitting 30% wheat dilution of cacao to reduce import costs. AOECS is protesting strongly against this and the use of wheat gluten in other foods for technological and economic reasons.
The EU parliament votes for mandatory declaration of use of wheat starch in food products. Meanwhile, a discussion in the Codex Commission regarding mandatory labeling of allergens wants to exclude gluten from the list. Considerable lobbying from AOECS manages to keep gluten on the list.
The Codex Committee on Nutrition and Food for Special Dietary Uses proposes that the threshold of gluten content should be set to 20 ppm for food that is naturally gluten-free and to 200 ppm for rendered gluten-free products. AOECS had a protruding role in writing the text for the proposal.
Despite pressure from the food industry against labeling wheat starch, the EU stands firm in persisting that it must be labeled. AOECS continues to lobby and writes a letter to the EU commissioner for Agriculture requesting improvements in labeling.
In the Netherlands, food industry was researching the possibility of using gluten-containing coating on cheese. By protests and lobbying from AOECS and the Dutch national society, these plans were abandoned by the industry.
Yet another letter from AOECS to the EU was sent requesting labeling improvements for gluten-free food and the use of the analytical method for determining the gluten content in food.
An important year.
First of all, the Codex Alimentarius Commission adopted a new worldwide Food Labelling Standard stating that ingredients and additives in food that contain gluten shall always be labeled without exceptions. This is a major win for AOECS who has been working and lobbying for this since 1991.
The Codex Alimentarius Commission also changed the rule that if a gluten-containing ingredient made up less than 25% of the total mass it did not have to be declared on the package. Since gluten was known to cause hypersensitivity, it had to be put on the label without exemptions if such an ingredient was part of the product.
Secondly, Dr. Mendez developed the ELISA R5 method for analyzing how much gluten content there is in food products. This test method will later become the standard for testing food products for gluten levels. Over 1 000 supposedly gluten-free products were tested and 80% contained less than 100 ppm gluten which was the test limit. 20% contained more, some up to 400 ppm.
In accordance with the Food Labelling Standard EU issues a directive confirming that all food products with cereals containing gluten (i.e. wheat, rye, barley, oats, spelt, kamut, or their hybridized strains) and products thereof have to be labeled as containing gluten. It took the EU five years to issue this directive since it was voted on in the EU parliament in 1995.
At first, EU would not accept the full Codex list of allergenic ingredients. The presence of gluten on the list was debated and it was no matter of course it should be on the list. Thanks to considerable lobbying and a meeting with the EU Commissioner for Consumer Protection it was finally accepted and allowed to be in the EU directive 2000/13/EC
Improvements to the Codex Standard for naturally gluten-free products were no gluten coating or other gluten-containing processing aids are allowed for cheese. For chocolate products, no flour or starch with gluten should be used for manufacturing.
Another improvement was to avoid the transfer of genes known to elicit gluten-sensitive enteropathy (coeliac disease) into GMO foods. This was an advance for us since research on inserting wheat genes into rice was being performed. The motive for this research was to make rice more suitable for baking but would have had restricted the diet for coeliacs considerably.
EU issues directive 2003/89/EC where gluten remains on the allergen list. The directive specifies that substances containing gluten that are used as processing aids and still present in the end product have to be declared, even if in an altered form.
The Codex Alimentarius Commission decides to lower the gluten threshold for food specially processed to reduce gluten content from 200 ppm to 100 ppm.
The Codex Committee on Methods of Analysis and Sampling endorsed the R5 Mendez (ELISA) as an approved method for testing gluten content in food (sandwich ELISA) and in beverages (competitive ELISA). This was later adopted into the Codex Alimentarius Commission Standard in 2008.
Codex Alimentarius Commission finally adopted the Codex Standard for Foods for Special Dietary Uses for Persons Intolerant to Gluten after a 17-year discussion in its Committee on Nutrition and Foods for Special Dietary Uses. A standard for gluten intolerant people is finally in place.
AOECS is awarded participation in EU-funded projects CD-Medics and PreventCD.
Harmonized rules on information about which products can be labeled with gluten-free or very low gluten content is issued by the EU in regulation 41/2009. Products containing 20 ppm of gluten or lower can be labeled as “gluten-free”, whereas products ranging from 20 up to 100 ppm can be labeled with “very low gluten” content.
Later resolution 828/2014 supersedes this one but with very small additions. The main message is that people intolerant to gluten should be helped to identify and choose a varied diet when eating inside or outside the home.
AOECS launches its own standard for manufacturing gluten-free food, the AOECS Standard. We start using the standard as a tool starting the European Licensing System (ELS), which is a program for harmonizing and structuring the use of the Crossed Grain Trademark on gluten-free food.
AOECS launches the ELS among its member societies and starts working more coordinated in handling the Crossed Grain Trademark.
AOECS decides to abolish the possibility to label ELS licensed food with from 21 – 100 ppm content of gluten. These goods had previously worn a special mark for showing “very low gluten content” but from now only products with 20 ppm content of gluten or below is allowed to wear the Crossed Grain Trademark.
One question we often get is why the limit is set to 20 ppm of gluten for products labeled “gluten-free”. Why not zero? This is because it is the lowest level that can be consistently detected in foods using valid scientific analytical tools.
Studies also show that eating normal amounts of food containing 20 ppm gluten or less should mean that you will consume less than 10 mg of gluten every day which is considered to be safe for people with coeliac disease.
The European Licensing system reaches over 12 000 Crossed Grain Trademark marked and controlled food products.
The increased revenue allows AOECS to establish a small society support fund to help new coeliac societies to develop the necessary skills to be able to start and correctly run the European Licensing System to get more controlled food products out on the market in food stores all across the continent.
The number of products in the AOECS governed European Licensing System continues to grow. Now the number of controlled products surpass 17 000. AOECS also discovered 38 attempted infringements of using the Crossed Grain Symbol without authorization. All of these were reported and disputed.
A survey on consumer trust for the Crossed Grain Trademark symbol was performed this year. 78 % of the consumers responded that they trust products with this mark more than those bearing only a gluten-free claim.
AOECS attended three Codex meetings. The most important decision was to wait with the adoption of a new test for the detection of gluten content called the G12-method until more comparable data is available.
AOECS starts partnerships with the European Society for Paediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition (ESPGHAN) and the European Society for Study of Coeliac Disease (ESsCD).
The General Assembly is a yearly conference. It is the highest decision forum for AOECS where all member societies from over 34 countries meet and vote on matters concerning the alliance. For the first time, this meeting is held digitally due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The European Licensing System for certifying gluten-free products to bear the Crossed Grain Trademark is still rapidly growing and controlled gluten-free products are becoming more and more accessible for Europeans suffering from coeliac disease. The number of licensed products now exceeds 22 500.
AOECS enters a partnership with the food safety company BRCGS allowing their Gluten-Free Certification Standard to be accepted as a part of the process when food producers want to become authorized users of the Crossed Grain Trademark.
A new website for AOECS is launched.