Most readers will know that tree nuts are one of the key 14 allergens, and that peanuts – a legume, botanically, not a nut – are another of the 14. Accordingly, when either is present in a food product, it or they must be named individually and treated separately. But what about when it comes to precautionary labelling?
A question raised on Facebook – asking whether ‘may contain nuts’ could include ‘peanuts’ too – gave cause for me to dig deep within the many Food Standards Agency documents concerning allergy and food labelling on their website to get confirmation of the answer – which may surprise many.
‘May contain’ labelling is not legislated, is voluntary, so there are no regulations – only guidelines. Regarding the matter in hand, this FSA document on technical guidance for labelling is revealing. I’d draw your attention to Clause 71 which reads:
The use of the generic term ‘may contain nuts’ to cover both nuts and peanuts is permitted if the risk of contamination is from both foods. There is no need to provide details of specific nuts under this type of voluntary labelling.
I’m not quite sure why this is so – is it really so hard to just add ‘and peanuts’? – but I seem to remember a sad case – possibly related to me by Allergy Action’s Hazel Gowland – of a peanut allergic but tree-nut tolerant young man who spotted a ‘contains tree nuts’ warning on a product, which also contained peanuts (both peanuts and tree nuts were listed in the ingredients, but he’d missed the former), and suffered a fatal reaction.
‘Contains’ statements or boxes are now banned, and I don’t know of any such incidence with a ‘may contains’ warning – there has never been a ‘may contain’ death – but it’s still a stark reminder that you can never be too careful when dealing with severe food allergies.
At a time when the overuse of ‘may contain’ labelling has rendered the warnings almost meaningless, according to a new report, not to mention the cause of huge widespread frustration, and the attitude towards such labelling varying greatly (some ignore them, some maintain a strict wide berth), this is a further reminder of just how confusing this matter can be – and that when it comes to food allergies, nothing should ever be assumed.