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Wheat gluten is used mainly as an ingredient for improving the rising ability and textural qualities of bread and other bakery products. It is also used in pet food to thicken the food or as a protein source. Wheat gluten containing melamine from China has been implicated in the pet food recall.
"This situation has been a tragedy for many families with pets, and it highlights the importance of a safe, domestic food supply," said John Thaemert, National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG) president and a wheat grower in Sylvan Grove, Kan. "NAWG and NAWG members continue to work to produce the safest, most abundant and most affordable wheat supply in the world."
"Congress is debating federal farm policy as we speak. NAWG is also working hard to ensure that the safety net needed by growers is in place and works well, to help cushion the boom and bust cycles inherent in farming," Thaemert said.
Almost half of U.S.-produced wheat is exported. However, 80 percent of wheat gluten is imported, mainly from the European Union, Australia and China. Many of these areas produce wheat gluten as a byproduct of wheat starch. In these instances, wheat starch is more commonly used than corn starch, the primary grain starch used domestically. This process allows these countries to sell wheat gluten for less than American producers, generally below U.S. production costs.
"We have been working hard to assure pet owners and our customers that wheat gluten produced by MGP Ingredients is safe and not involved in the recent pet food recalls," said Steve Pickman, vice president of corporate relations at MGPI, which is headquartered in Atchison, Kan. "We have also been sharing information about our wheat gluten production processes to members of the press and public in an effort to shed light on what this product is used for and why it is vital."
For instance, at MGPI, which has the largest wheat gluten production capacity in the U.S. and only uses North American wheat, quality control parameters include raw material quality tests as well as in-line product performance testing during the production process. Each production lot is further tested in-house for functionality and microbiological activity before shipment. Proactive outside auditing by the American Institute of Baking and customers also helps ensure the product is safe.
"Wheat and wheat products produced in the U.S. are subject to quality and safety guidelines that are designed to help prevent the occurrence of incidents such as the one currently associated with Chinese wheat gluten and tainted pet foods," Pickman said.
"Therefore," he added, "all wheat gluten should not be suspect. Rather, concerns should be directed toward the types of conditions, practices and standards under which gluten, or any other ingredient for that matter, is produced in various parts of the world. That's the larger, overriding issue."
Tim Newkirk, MGPI president and COO, commented: "The U.S. food safety systems and processes are among the world's best. The U.S. has accomplished this through the development and implementation of government-mandated systems such as Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs), various FDA and USDA regulations and the commitment to these systems and regulations by U.S. food and feed manufacturers."
"There's no doubt U.S. producers take a lot of pride in delivering clean, high-quality wheat. Additionally, there's a financial incentive for them," says John Oades, vice president, U.S. Wheat Associates in Portland, Ore. "Wheat is inspected throughout the supply chain all the way onto export vessels. The Federal Grain Inspection Service is the best of its kind in the world and provides a reliable, accurate certification and registration system that ensures buyers get exactly what they've paid for. No other country has a system like it."