So-called “may contains”, or advisory labels on packaged foods, are confusing for allergic consumers and can even be dangerous, according to research published in 2013 in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology.
“Consumers should avoid all products with advisory labels if they wish to avoid risk,” says Steve Taylor, an author of the study and co-director of the Food Allergy Research & Resource Program (FARRP) at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
To get a sense of the “may contain” landscape, researchers set out to determine precisely how much peanut (if any) was in various products that had advisory labeling for peanut. Overall, 16 out of the 186 products (just under 9 percent) that were analyzed contained detectable levels of peanut, which is similar to previous findings.
There was great variation in the level of peanut present, ranging from 2.5 parts per million (the lowest amount the technology used could detect) up to 510 ppm. The 510 ppm was the equivalent of 20.6 milligrams of peanut – which could certainly trigger a reaction.
Bars with Peanut ‘May Contains’
The type of food appeared to influence the likelihood of peanut being present – the allergen was detected in advisory-labeled nutrition bars, candy, baking ingredients, cereal, snack foods and baked goods, but not frozen desserts or instant meals.
Overall, nutrition bars appeared to contain the greatest levels of peanut, which led the study authors to conduct an additional survey. Of 159 bars that had advisory labeling, 12 contained peanut – ranging from 3 ppm up to an astonishing 26,000 ppm.
Of great concern, two nutrition bars with labels that had no mention of peanut whatsoever (advisory or ingredient) were found to contain peanut at 13 ppm and 1,260 ppm.
The better news is that the 15 nutrition bars studied that were labeled peanut-free did, in fact, have no detectable level of peanut, suggesting these are the safer options.
The authors say that advisory labels can lead to risk-taking behavior in consumers. Someone may think they’re “safe” to consume products with an advisory label simply because they’ve done so in the past without reacting – but in reality, as the study showed, even two different lot numbers of the exact same product can have varying allergen levels, let alone products from different companies.
Wording & Risk Level
As well, many consumers incorrectly believe that the specific wording used is associated with a different level of risk: a previous report by the FDA found that both allergic and non-allergic consumers believed a product with the shorter “may contain [allergen]” warning was more likely to contain that allergen than products with a longer warning, such as “made in a facility that also processes ….”
“This is definitely a hazardous practice,” notes Taylor of FARRP, since advisory labels are completely voluntary.
While labeling of the Top 8 allergens (Top 11 in Canada) is required if any of them is in an ingredient of a product, advisory labels for unintended inclusion of an allergen (this can occur in processing) remains voluntary. There are no rules governing when a manufacturer must include an advisory label, or which words to use.
In the same vein, just because a food item says it may contain “traces” of peanuts doesn’t mean that any peanut present will be a trace amount. In fact, there is no standardized definition for the word “trace”, says Taylor, so, like the other advisory statements, there is no reason to believe that a product with this warning would be less likely to cause a reaction.
“This choice of advisory labeling term is probably one of the worst, because consumers may believe that it signifies a lower risk,” says Taylor.
He says that until something is done about the current state of advisory labeling, it’s best for food-allergic consumers to avoid products with any of the warning variations. Moving forward, he says the FDA should be encouraged to improve advisory labeling.