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“May Contain” warnings: what do they mean?

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“May contain” warnings are everywhere - do they really mean anything anymore?

It’s been a couple of decades since food manufacturers started labeling their foods, first voluntarily and then through regulation. What was once controversial is now so common that it’s hard to imagine a world without it. Of course we let people know about common allergens; it saves lives and protects quality of life.

The FALCPA and what warnings mean

Congress passed the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA) to help Americans avoid the health risks posed by food allergens. The law is regulated by the FDA. It requires that labels must clearly identify the food source names of all ingredients that are or contain any protein derived from one of the eight most common food allergens. Those are milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans.

The “may contain” warning is different from the FALCPA “this product contains” warning because it is voluntary. The FALCPA requirements do not apply to potential or unintentional presence of a major food allergen in foods resulting from “cross-contact” during manufacturing. This occurs when a trace amount of food becomes incorporated into another food not intended to contain it. FDA guidance for the food industry states that food allergen advisory statements (“may contain”) should not be used as a substitute for adhering to good manufacturing processes.

Is the voluntary warning meaningful anymore?

Anyone who reads labels has noticed an uptick in the appearance of the advisory labeling. Almost half of the foods sold in the market today carry one of these labels. Australia employs very similar food labeling regulations. Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) conducted a survey among allergy sufferers to find out how effective the labels are. About 54 percent of respondents said they were not useful. The voluntary labels were overused or used just to cover the manufacturer’s liability exposure. Vagueness has led many allergy sufferers to ignore the labels. Even the FDA’s site says it is looking for “ways to best manage the use of these types of statements," so there is no consensus.

In the meantime, allergy sufferers need to stay alert, read the labels and make appropriate choices for their health. Just because a label is everywhere doesn’t mean it isn’t true. And your good health is not worth risking.

Source: FDA, foodmag.com/au

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