Should You Eat Foods Made in a Shared Facility or on Shared Equipment?

Should you eat this product?. Photo © Jane M. Anderson

Question: Should you eat foods made in a shared facility or on shared equipment?


If you follow the gluten-free diet because you have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, can you safely eat foods made in the same facility as wheat-containing or gluten-containing foods? What about foods made ​on the same equipment or foods that say "may contain traces of wheat"?


The answer to these questions is "it depends." Food labeling laws in the United States are tricky, and ultimately leave it up to the consumer to decide if she wants to take the risk.

Here's the background: By law, food manufacturers must disclose if a given product contains wheat. However, they are not required to tell you if there's gluten in their product, nor are they required to disclose whether that product is made in the same facility or on the same equipment as wheat-containing or gluten-containing products (see Food Labeling Laws and Gluten for more information).

In addition, wheat-free does not mean gluten-free, since foods free of wheat can still include gluten proteins from barley and/or rye (most frequently barley).

Label Disclosures Voluntary, Not Compulsory

As a courtesy to allergic consumers, many companies do place statements on their labels saying a food is "made in the same facility as wheat-containing foods, "made on shared equipment with wheat-containing foods," or "may contain traces of wheat" (which usually means the food is made on shared equipment).

It's rarer, but not unheard of, to find such statements regarding gluten in foods.

Therefore, while the presence of one of these statements on a label indicates the need for caution, the absence of such a statement doesn't mean you're home free and can consume the food with impunity.

Generally speaking, foods made in a shared facility likely will be less risky than foods made on shared equipment (or those stating "may contain traces of wheat").

Most manufacturers will clean their equipment between different products, especially if they're moving from a product with an allergen (i.e., wheat) to one that doesn't contain the allergen.

Cleaning protocols differ from manufacturer to manufacturer, and some take great care with this cleaning process. However, food processing equipment is notoriously difficult to clean unless the manufacturer actually dismantles it completely between runs (and I think we all can agree they're not going to do that!).

Okay, What Does This All Mean To Me?

So should you eat a product with a "made on shared equipment/in the same facility/may contain traces of" statement for wheat? Honestly, it's going to depend on two things: 1) your level of sensitivity to trace gluten, and 2) your desire to stay as gluten-free as possible.

You may be able to consume any or most of these products without a reaction, or possibly with just a small reaction (see: Is it a real reaction to tiny amounts of gluten? for more information on how reactions differ).

In fact, some people with celiac disease have what's called silent celiac disease, meaning they don't react at all, even when they eat all the gluten they want.

However, most of us do react when we consume gluten (see: What Happens When You Get Glutened?). Some of us find our bodies rebel even if we eat foods containing less than 20 parts per million of gluten, which means they meet the generally accepted definition of "gluten-free." (See: How Much Gluten Can Make Me Sick? for the details).

So What Should I Do?

  • If you're not particularly sensitive to gluten (for example, if you have no problem eating foods with no obvious gluten ingredients), you probably can eat foods made both on shared equipment and in shared facilities without experiencing a reaction.
  • If you find yourself reacting sometimes when you take chances with new products or a new restaurant, you might want to steer clear of foods made on shared equipment, but you may find through trial and error that you can eat some foods made in shared facilities, especially if they're certified gluten-free (gluten-free certification programs dictate the steps companies must take to avoid gluten cross-contamination between products).
  • If you know you're very sensitive to trace gluten (for example, if you avoid most processed foods because you usually react), then you'll probably react to these products, too ... but of course, you likely already knew that.
  • If you want to avoid all possible gluten whether you react or not (as some people do to protect their health), then you obviously should skip products with these statements, as well.

Ultimately, products with "made in a shared facility" and "made on shared equipment" statements might wind up being safe additions to your diet, or they might not — it's up to you to make that call, possibly based on some experimentation and on your body's reaction.

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