Oat-based snack foods and baked goods are in high demand, but recent crop shortages have manufacturers scrambling to find a secure supply of this popular grain. Caused in part by rising temperatures and drought conditions, the oat shortage has also been compounded by grasshopper infestations, fire, and decisions by growers to plant fewer oats in favor of higher-earning crops. The result is that oat crop yields in the U.S. have fallen by 40% and Canada is faring even worse.
Faced with fierce competition, manufacturers of gluten-free oat brands will need to get creative to locate an adequate supply of oats and safely deliver products to consumers who require a gluten-free diet.
What’s behind the current shortage and why it matters
Because oats are so prevalent in gluten-free packaged foods, the current shortage is impacting the manufacture of a wide range of products, from breakfast items like oatmeal cups, granola, and nutrition bars to cookies, breads, and other baked goods. While it might be tempting to substitute other gluten-free grains while supplies are limited, this solution is less than ideal because oats have so many nutritional benefits, like soluble fiber, that make them tough to beat for health-conscious consumers.
During the current shortage, being able to source high-quality oats for gluten-free products is particularly challenging because of the risk of cross-contact. Even though oats are inherently gluten-free, they are often grown during the same season as gluten-containing grains, often in adjacent or nearby fields. The risk of cross-contact is compounded during harvesting because the same equipment is used to process other crops that contain gluten. Moreover, the USDA allows oat crops to contain a certain percentage of other grains, so growers have little incentive to clean gluten out of their crops, especially when supply is short, and demand is high.
What you can do to prevent oat shortages from impacting production
Among manufacturers who sell certified gluten-free goods, few have had to stop producing popular products or pull gluten-free claims. However, with ongoing drought conditions continuing to affect oat crop yields, manufacturers of gluten-free foods would be wise to develop contingency plans for weathering the current shortage.
To prevent dwindling supplies from impacting production, it is important to communicate early and often with suppliers to tell them what is needed to meet your threshold for gluten-free. If you are concerned that your supplier can’t meet your needs, it might be time to look at other options.
To get around supply shortages in the U.S. and Canada, some manufacturers are tapping into international markets. Several countries in Europe and South America have regulations regarding gluten-free labeling and many follow the Codex standard for gluten-free foods. Even Australia, which considers oats a gluten-containing crop because of the risk of cross-contact, is a potential resource, because they understand the issues and can provide you with an honest assessment of the level of gluten contamination in their oats.
Quality is the ticket to a gluten-free oat supply
Once you’ve located a reliable source of oats, it’s important to ensure that your supply meets FDA’s minimum threshold requirements for labeling products gluten-free. If your products are certified gluten-free, you may need to meet an even higher standard. For example, the Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO) requires products to contain less than 10 parts per million (ppm) of gluten to be certified as gluten-free compared to the FDA standard of 20 ppm.
Conducting a visual inspection is one of the best ways to assure a clean supply of oats. Our recommended sampling plan is to take twenty samples of 0.5 kg each from throughout the lot or shipment, and examine each individually for the presence of wheat, rye or barley grains. At GFCO, we require oats to contain less than one grain of gluten per four kilograms of oats to pass a visual inspection, meaning you could see a total of two gluten grains across those twenty samples, but not three or more, in order to accept the lot.
To get high-quality oats, make sure your supplier employs mechanical sorting, purity protocol or a combination of the two to produce a yield of gluten-free oats. Mechanical sorting uses a variety of equipment to separate oats from other grains based on size, shape, and color. With purity protocol, suppliers maintain tight control over where and how they grow and harvest crops. A third method uses a combination of purity protocol and mechanical sorting to get an oat supply that is as clean as possible.
Earn consumer trust with clear communication
If all else fails and you do need to substitute an ingredient or stop making a gluten-free claim, it’s important to be transparent with your customers. Publish any changes on your website, so that people can get answers if they have any concerns. In most cases, consumers will appreciate that you're paying attention and communicating changes in a timely manner.
There’s no question that the current oat shortage has made manufacturing gluten-free oat goods more challenging. Now, more than ever, it’s important to communicate your needs to suppliers and look for new sources of high-quality oats if you have any concerns about cross-contact. With a little creativity and persistence, you can continue to offer consumers their favorite gluten-free oat products without sacrificing on taste, quality, or safety.