What does ‘may contain’ mean? Half of labelled products are allergen-free

By Caroline SCOTT-THOMAS contact

- Last updated on GMT

Peanuts are one of 14 allergens that must be labelled under EU law - but their unintentional presence in food is not regulated
Peanuts are one of 14 allergens that must be labelled under EU law - but their unintentional presence in food is not regulated

Related tags: Asthma, Allergy, Uk food standards agency

Just under half of products labelled with a ‘may contain’ allergen warning contain no trace of the allergen, according to the results of a UK survey.

The UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) examined levels of milk, gluten, peanut or hazelnut in 1,016 packaged food samples carrying the allergy warnings ‘may contain X’ or ‘not suitable for someone with X allergy’.

“The number of samples with advisory labelling but no detectable hazelnut or peanut was just below 50%,”​ said FSA food allergy research manager Sarah Hardy. She said the survey results suggested cross contamination was well-controlled by manufacturers. The agency found traces of gluten and milk in products without advisory labelling, but not hazelnut or peanut.

“However, the levels found in the products were low so the FSA did not consider it to be a risk for people with allergies,”​ she said.

Industry best practice

Food manufacturers must label 14 allergens under EU law – peanuts, tree nuts, soybeans, mustard, eggs, lupin, milk, fish, cereals containing gluten, sesame, celery, sulphur dioxide, molluscs and crustaceans. For products that do not intentionally contain these as ingredients, current industry best practice is simply to take all necessary precautions to avoid cross contamination and flag up the possibility of allergens' unintentional presence.

Restricting choice

“Undeclared allergen cross-contamination in the UK is lower than found in other countries,”​ Hardy said. “…However, manufacturers need to regularly review their risk assessment and the application of precautionary allergen labelling to ensure that people with allergies are protected without unnecessarily restricting choice.”

For food allergic consumers, the agency recommends taking heed of ‘may contain’ labels, as ignoring them could put them at risk.

However, the FSA noted several variations on the advisory label. The most frequently used was ‘may contain traces’, which appeared on 38% of sampled products. Only 28% of products followed FSA advice to use either ‘may contain X’ or ‘not suitable for someone with an X allergy’.

“These variations have led some allergic consumers to believe that different types of advisory statements constitute different levels of risk,”​ the FSA said.

The European Academy of Anaphylaxis and Clinical Immunology (EAACI) has been pushing for stricter EU legislation on allergen labelling, saying that current laws on ‘may contain’ labelling are insufficient to protect those with food allergies.

The FSA survey is available online here​.

Related topics: Policy

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3 comments

Frustrated father on "may contain"

Posted by Satu Tolvanen,

As long as there is no scientifically established limit to the amount of an allergen that can actually cause an allergic reaction the "may contain" is needed to protect not only persons with allergies but also the industry. As the detection limits are getting lower and lower, the risk of recall is increasingly higher and industry can not afford to put out products that are made following good manufacturing practices but that do not absolutely exclude all the most minute carry-over from equipment, air and employees (the "peanut free" designation is extremely onerous, even the restaurant that is allowed to bring lunch to the employees has to be certified "peanut free" so as to avoid the possibility a minute quantity of a protein ending up in a product) a statement of "may contain" is used to avoid the possibility of a positive test that will result in a costly recall. The Allergy and Anaphylaxis associations and the scientific community need to start working on establishing limits to what is actually meaningful rather than insisting an increasingly smaller zero limit to better serve the best interest of all parties.

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Restrictive coverall

Posted by Yvonne Thwaites,

I agree with frustrated father as he says with a child with limited nut allergies the labelling rules out more each shopping trip. My daughter is in this position and it is annoying. Products which clearly have no nuts or aren't produced in a non nut free diet should not label with the coverall may contain nuts

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Frustrated Father

Posted by Richard Newsom,

For those who do not suffer from an allergy (not an intolerance) labelling is often not noticed or even cared about however in my case, my 16 year old daughter has been allergic to NUTS and more specifically Peanut since she was 2 years old. we have managed this well and have had no 'incidents' for 14 years but this is mainly down to vigilance and scanning labelling thoroughly.
It is extremely frustrating when packaging has a get out clause of 'may contain traces of' or 'produced in a factory handling' these are mostly by the large supermarket chains (ASDA being the worst for it) Although as a family we generally cook from scratch which means we all have a varied diet and do not have to worry as much but things she misses out on are simple things all kids should experience...biscuits, chocolates, cakes. surely these large chains have traceability, surely they know where the products come from, where they are processed and what goes into them, surely they have the where with all to find out and indeed make sure these manufacturers use clean lines and do not cross contaminate.

For me, it is a catch all phrase to stop any litigation, the majority do not care, the minority suffer because of it.

they install disabled toilets, ramps, have wheelchairs and marking zones for those minorities, surely they can deal with accurate labelling on food for those who really need it so.

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