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Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver in hot water over gluten-free food label

Jamie Oliver is reportedly being sued over the unauthorized use of a label design for gluten-free foods.
/ Source: TODAY

Jamie Oliver, the British celebrity chef and restaurateur best known for his modern takes on classic English cuisine, has been a longtime advocate of eating healthier.

But now, the chef, who rose to fame with his hit TV show "The Naked Chef," is facing a lawsuit from a non-profit group that advocates for members of the gluten-free community.

Oliver has thousands of gluten-free recipes on his website and, like many other recipe sites and food blogs, tags or labels dishes that omit gluten-containing ingredients, such as wheat, rye, barley and oats, by marking them with a tiny symbol — the letters "GF" in a small circle.

But according to court documents filed in Washington State this month, and as first reported by TMZ, the Gluten Intolerance Group of North America (GIG) is suing the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation, Inc., Jamie Oliver Enterprises, Ltd., and Jamie T. Oliver the individual, for "federal certification mark infringement, counterfeiting, and unfair competition under federal statutes, with pendent claims for trademark infringement, and unfair competition" because of his use of a gluten-free symbol that is similar to the group's signature gluten-free certification label (the letters "GF" in a circle with the phrase "Certified Gluten Free").

In other words, the advocacy group is claiming that Oliver's use of a "mark showing 'GF' in a circle, is identical or substantially similar to GIG’s marks and ... is intended to falsely certify that Oliver’s recipes are gluten-free."

But does this mean that Oliver's recipes aren't really gluten-free?

The chef's site includes a fact sheet about how his special diet recipes are classified online and explains that "all gluten-free recipes exclude ingredients deemed by the NHS [the UK's National Health Service] to be unsafe for people who suffer from gluten intolerance, otherwise known a [celiac] disease."

So GIG isn't suing Oliver because his gluten-free recipes may or may not contain gluten — they're simply trying to protect their trademark.

To receive GIG's Certified Gluten-Free label on their products, companies must go through a multi-step process that includes yearly plant audits, as well as quarterly test results. "Only when a company has been certified gluten-free by GIG is that company permitted to use GIG’s certification marks on, and in connection with, their goods, thereby notifying consumers that their product has satisfied the stringent standards for being certified gluten-free by GIG," the complaint reads.

GIG does not certify recipes or recipe sources, so getting official certification for the recipes on his website is not an option for Oliver. Other dietary considerations are marked with similar letters in a circle on Oliver's website (e.g. "V" for vegetarian).

The Gluten Intolerance Group of North America declined to comment to TODAY Food, citing their attorney's recommendation not to discuss a pending legal matter. The chef, who was recently in hot water with vegan groups, was not immediately available for comment.

Lawsuits aside, people with celiac disease or a gluten intolerance (or those who are cooking for people who cannot eat gluten) should always read recipes and food labels carefully — even when preparing a recipe that claims to be gluten free.

"For a recipe to make a gluten-free claim, it needs to be free from ingredients containing wheat, rye, barley or their derivatives," Claire Baker, director of communications and new media for Beyond Celiac, an advocacy group that is not affiliated with GIG, told TODAY Food.

"However," added Baker, "a dish is only as gluten-safe as its preparation. If the food is prepared on cooking surfaces or with utensils that have come in contact with gluten-containing ingredients, it is no longer safe for people who need a strict gluten-free diet."

It's also important for home cooks to note that some unexpected ingredients, such as soy sauce, baking powder and honey mustard, may also contain gluten — and even a tiny amount of gluten can cause a severe reaction in those suffering from a serious intolerance. "It can be a challenge if a recipe is promoted as gluten-free but does not make reference to other steps that need to be taken to keep it safe for people with celiac disease," Baker adds. "In a Beyond Celiac survey, 44 percent of our community report that they get 'glutened' [an informal term some gluten-intolerant people use to indicate they were unknowingly served, or ate, something containing gluten] at least once a month."

Baker, who did not comment on GIG's pending lawsuit specifically, said, "Our community needs to have confidence in products and recipes that make a gluten-free claim."