Gluten Free in China

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Today we focus on gluten and “gluten –free” food.

Although not yet as popular as in Europe or US, gluten free food starts to appear in China as well. We mainly see import products using claims such as “gluten-free” (无麸质) and similar, and they try to set the trend – i.e. to lead gluten-free awareness for Chinese consumers.

We researched the legal status of this kind of claims.

Gluten is a protein, so basically gluten-free is a claim related to a nutrient, not to an ingredient.

As such it should be on principle be not subject to GB 7718 but rather to GB 28050  which – however – does not include any mention to gluten in its positive list of allowed claims.

If this would be it, we should consider that this kind of claim is – in theory – not allowed in China.

However gluten is somehow mentioned in food regulations.

A first reference appears in GB/T23779 issued in 2009 by AQSIQ (“Allergens in prepackaged foods”), which includes – amongst the substances that may induce allergic reactions – gluten-containing grains and related products.

This reference is then taken into GB 7718 “General Rules for the Labelling of Prepackaged Foods” which recommends (!) the labeling of foods containing sensitizing substances such as gluten.

A real regulation of “gluten-free” claim however appears much later. A 2015 standard specifically applicable for inspection of gluten allergen ingredients in prepackaged food for export (however, not for import or for domestic trade) makes clear reference to STAN 118-1979 in order to verify compliance of gluten-free claims. This regulation sets a maximum limit for gluten-free claim of 20 mg/kg.

It appears – although in a not very explicit way – that STAN 118-1979 has become applicable piece of regulation also in China.

Beside the abovementioned referral, we also notice that a Chinese version of this regulation is published on the official SAMR/CFDA website. China is member of CODEX ALIMETARIUS COMMISSION which approved such regulation.

This gluten-free claim – rather new in China – has however encountered some…misunderstanding from some courts though.

We had a case where a Court considered mislabeled a product claiming “without gluten” as the ingredient list did not contain any referral to gluten.

The Court in fact qualified “gluten” as “other nutrient content” according to Article 4.2 of GB 28050-2011, and accordingly required that its content should be labeled on the list.

Basically, this court required that a “without gluten” needs to include “gluten” as nutrient in the nutrition label, failing which the specification in nutrition list would mislead consumers (since “麸质” is very important to a particular group of people who are allergic to gluten).

As a result, the court supported the consumer’s proposition.

This seems frankly speaking questionable to us as (i) GB 28050 has a very exhaustive list of nutrients that can be labeled, (ii) this list is clearly blocked and cannot be modified, (iii) gluten is not on such list, (iv) there is therefore no guideline on how gluten should be labeled (which measure unit? Which rounding? How to calculate its NRV? Etc..).

Moreover, if we consider that China has in some way defined the threshold for Gluten Free, we can also consider that there is no risk of misleading customers.

This in our understanding confirms that – more and more – a clear standard for gluten free products is needed in China.


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