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9/7/2008
ShopRite on Concord Pike offers gluten-free Kosher food line; Councilman Weiner opposes Stoltz project - News Journal

Searching the globe for gluten-free foods
Celiac disease sufferers find safe food at some stores
BY ERIC RUTH • THE NEWS JOURNAL • SEPTEMBER 7, 2008

Alex Cox gets her bagels shipped in from Canada. Her pasta comes from Germany. And her falafel flies all the way from Australia.

If by chance she's feeling like an already-prepared meal -- from a restaurant, or at the to-go case of her local supermarket -- she must interrogate the sometimes-perplexed workers to be sure the ingredients are safe and the proper procedures were followed.

Faced with the reality that even a crumb of bread can mean days of sickness, Cox and other sufferers of celiac disease make extraordinary efforts not just to find food that is healthful, but to find food that is not poisonous. It's a situation that's not lost on food retailers, who are responding with growing efforts to stock so-called "gluten-free" food.

This week, ShopRite supermarket on Concord Pike opened a separate area of its kosher deli to ensure complete exclusion of all products containing gluten during food preparation, an effort that local celiac patients believe is the first of its kind in the state.

"Prepared hot foods made fresh, made in a dedicated line, is a new thing" in Delaware supermarkets, said Eva Szalewicz, coordinator of the Delaware Celiac and Gluten Intolerant Group.

As Szalewicz and many others well know, the consequences of eating the wrong food can be agonizing -- gastrointestinal distress, migraine headaches, even cancer if left untreated. It's all caused by a gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley that produces a toxic reaction in the digestive system.

For those who are extremely sensitive, it doesn't take much.

"If someone in the kitchen were to take a spoon that was in a bowl of pasta and touch my food, that would cause a response," said Cox, 29, who is one of five in her family with the disorder. Federal health officials estimate about 3 million people in the United States have celiac disease, or about 1 out of every 133 people -- but 97 percent are undiagnosed, according to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness.

As a result, retailers are "on a tear" to boost gluten-free options, according to a report by the Food Marketing Institute and the Nielsen company. In the 52 weeks that ended in February, sales were up 20 percent to $1.3 billion, capping four straight years of advances. In July, a Web site called SpecialGourmets.com was launched to help guide celiacs toward safe shopping and dining options.

Restaurants add selections

In recent years, gluten-free options in Delaware have become more plentiful and more tasty, expanding out of health food stores into mainstream markets, patients say. Even chain restaurants such as Outback Steakhouse now offer gluten-free selections, a feature that demands much more than simply using wheat-free ingredients. Surfaces must be cleaned thoroughly if they have been used to prepare products with gluten, and ingredient labels must be scrutinized -- even commercial ketchup and ice cream have been known to contain gluten.

"Even reading a label and not seeing the word wheat doesn't tell you anything," Cox said.
At ShopRite, the gluten-free product line is prepared in the same section as the kosher meals, meaning the entire menu can be used by both groups. For such treats as fried chicken, ShopRite invested in a special oven that's capable of creating a crispy coating without regular flour and deep-frying.

"The other part we had to be very careful of is to not cross-contaminate," said Murray Schulman, ShopRite's hot foods and deli specialist. Workers receive specialized training, he said, and recipe after recipe was tested.

"We practiced with the products just to the point where it tasted that good," he said. "It took a lot of work."
Local rabbis visit regularly to ensure operations are being kept kosher.

"It's vital, because it's an easy way for Jews to keep kosher," Rabbi Steven Saks of Adas Kodesch Shel Emeth synagogue said of ShopRite's operation. "Really, it's the only game in town."

Just as with the Jewish community, ShopRite is eager to foster a belief that gluten-free procedures are being religiously followed. "If they want to come in and spot check, they're welcome to," said Dan Tanzer, a ShopRite executive who led the new gluten-free effort. In part, it was a move that seemed even more prudent once the chain learned that a health-oriented Whole Foods supermarket could be moving in as part of a new shopping center next door.

For the time being, the Whole Foods project has grown less certain, leaving ShopRite and the nearby Trader Joe's to serve area customers with special dietary needs. New Castle County Councilman Robert Weiner, a prominent opponent of the initial development plan for Concord Pike and Naamans Road, believes the community would be better served by health care businesses, not another supermarket.

"We accept the fact that this corner will not remain a cornfield forever," he said. "We would love to see a Whole Foods too. There are plenty of vacant shops" that pose less of a threat to congestion.

In that case, ShopRite could continue to claim gluten-free dominance, patients say. But, if the current trends continue, industry observers say, they won't enjoy it forever.

Contact Eric Ruth at 324-2428 or eruth@delawareonline.com.

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