Q: I’m highly allergic to peanuts, dairy and shellfish, and I’m having an argument with a friend who also has a dairy allergy. She says foods that say “may contain dairy” should be avoided, but she will eat a food when the label says “processed in a facility with dairy.”
She’s studying law and claims manufacturers simply add this phrase to protect against liability. However, I avoid foods with all of these warnings. Which of us is right?
Dr. Sicherer: With packaged foods, the “major” allergens (milk, egg, wheat, soy, peanut, tree nut, fish and crustacean shellfish) that are ingredients of a product must be shown on the label. However, additional advisory or precautionary labeling, including terms such as “may contain milk,” is voluntary.
Manufacturers may use these types of statements to indicate concerns that the allergen could be included unintentionally through cross-contact, when the allergen is not an intended ingredient in the product. However, a grayer area is that there are no specific guidelines regarding what words a company should use or exactly how to assess the risks.
Therefore, I would worry about both of your friend’s conclusions. First, she should not be attributing different risk levels to her interpretation of the words used. In fact, one study found there was no relationship of frequency or degree of allergen contamination compared to the level of risk that consumers read into the label terms. In other words, your friend is wrong to think “in a facility” implies less risk than “may contain.”
The proliferation of advisory labeling can reduce food choices and lead to presumption that such warnings are simply liability protection. However, the FDA’s guidance to manufacturers about these advisories is that they have to be truthful.
Do advise your friend that it can be dangerous to ignore the advisory warnings.
Dr. Scott Sicherer is a practicing allergist, clinical researcher and professor of pediatrics. He is Director of the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute and Chief of Pediatric Allergy and Immunology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. He’s also the author of Food Allergies: A Complete Guide for Eating When Your Life Depends On It.
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