Note: For the U.S. version of this article, click here.
They can be seen on the labels of cracker boxes, granola bars, cans of soup and many other products on grocery stores shelves. Precautionary statements, or “may contains”, warn customers that traces of an allergenic food might unintentionally have wound up in a packaged food.
This inadvertent cross-contact can occur because of shared processing lines or baking equipment, or because workers use the same gloves while producing a number of products.
Examples of these warnings include: “may contain peanuts”, “produced in a facility that also uses nuts” or “made on equipment that also processes milk”.
However, in March 2012 Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency recommended the use of only one precautionary label: “may contain [X]”.
These types of labels are voluntary and are not required under labelling regulations in Canada.
What you need to know about “may contains” labels:
– The wording of the warning label does not give an indication as to the risk of the allergen or gluten being present. Allergists generally advise avoiding foods with precautionary labels containing your allergen.
– Health Canada states that precautionary labels should be “truthful, clear and non-ambiguous, and that they not be a substitute for Good Manufacturing Practices”.
– Because advisory labels are voluntary, there is no guarantee products without these warnings will not contain traces of allergens. If you are unsure about a packaged food, Allergic Living suggests calling the manufacturer to find out about the food allergy management practices used in producing that food. If company representatives can’t adequately answer your questions, avoid the food.
– Companies that develop products with allergy concerns in mind are invaluable to consumers with food allergies. Become familiar with them (e.g. you will read about many in Allergic Living magazine). Some promote right on a label that they produce in a “dedicated facility” without certain allergens – e.g. peanut or milk or wheat.
Extra Caution: If your child is peanut-allergic and a product has a precautionary warning for nuts but not peanuts, you would be wise to contact the manufacturer to ensure it isn’t including peanuts in the term “nuts”.
Do ‘May Contains’ actually contain the allergen – or is this just a case of companies protecting themselves against litigation?
While it may be that some companies simply add a “may contain” for legal protection, you can’t assume that is so. In at least three studies now, foods with precautionary labels did contain the allergen in question.
See our article Advisory Labels: May Contain Confusion about a 2013 study in which products with “may contain” warnings were tested for the presence of peanut allergen.
See also: How to Read a Label When You Have Food Allergies (Canada)