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Warning Labels: Are All Necessary?

*This article is based on personal experience and is not medical advice. Please consult your allergist or doctor to figure out the best plan of action for your allergies.*

Everyone has seen the warning labels on containers of food. They range from “may contain” to “processed with” to even “contains”. Everyone who has a food allergy or knows someone who has a food allergy has had to read these labels. Some choose to ignore the labels while some let the labels dictate what they can and cannot eat. More than once, I have sat in the aisles of a grocery store, reading label after label, just wondering what the point of some of the labels is.

Some companies update the labels every few years or even every few months. I have noticed lately that more and more allergen labels are popping up on food items I used to consider “safe foods” -- the foods I could always rely on to be safe. At the same time, other companies are getting rid of the labels.

According to the FDA’s website, “Congress passed the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA). This law identified eight foods as major food allergens: milk, eggs, fish, Crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans.” Recently, sesame has been added to the list as a major food allergen. The FALCPA of 2004 was one of the leading laws in food allergy reforms when it came to packaged foods and beverages.

The FALCPA requires all major food allergens contained in the food or beverage to be listed under either the allergen list or a separate list that starts with the word “contains” followed by the allergens. The common name of the allergen must also be used somewhere on the label (such as lecithin also being labeled as soy or whey also being labeled as milk). The only exception to these labeling laws pertains to made-to-order food.

The law, however, does not prevent companies from creating labels such as “may contain” or “produced in a facility with”. Typically, these labels are used when a company makes two different foods, one containing a major food allergy and the other being a food that does not. One such example is Kit-Kats. In the United States of America, some manufacturing plants of Kit-Kats state that they are manufactured in the same facility as peanuts while others do not. This warning label is determined by the manufacturing location of the food.

These labels are the ones that come into question for most people with allergies. Are these “may contain” and “processed with” labels really necessary? Some will say yes, some will say no; it depends on the person you ask. I say some are necessary, but not all. There are some companies I know for a fact do not manufacture my allergen, but the label says otherwise. There are also some companies I know manufacture my allergen, in which case I am glad for the label. It depends on the company.

So, when it comes to eating foods that contain these labels, the real question comes with how severe one’s allergy is and how much of a risk the person is willing to take. If it is a food they are almost certain is safe, they may choose to eat it. If it is a new food or one they know has caused problems in the past (even if it is only a “may contain” label), they may choose not to eat it. Ultimately, if there is a label that says “may contain” or “made in a facility with,” it is usually because the item is manufactured in the same facility as the allergen listed and is therefore necessary to keep the people with that allergen safe in the chance that there is some sort of cross-contamination with the allergen in question.


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