You have four foods. One has nuts listed in the ingredients. One says “free from nuts”. One bears the warning “may contain nuts”. Another says “does not contain nuts”. How would you rank them in danger order for your nut allergic child?
I would probably say ingredients > may contain > does not contain > free from, with “free from nuts” being the least dangerous to my son.
Is that a rational assumption? If we leave aside the thorny issue of how much nut is in foods labelled “may contain nuts”, is there any difference between “does not contain” and “free from”?
The Food Standards Agency best practice Guidance on Allergen Management and Consumer Information notes that consumers may interpret allergen free claims to mean a “complete absence” (which, when the guidance was published at least, was beyond the capability of scientific testing). The guidance also states that:
“It should not be assumed that the lack of a need to use advisory allergen warnings entitles a product to make a ‘Free From’ or ‘made in allergen X free factory’ claim. Consumers are likely to actively seek such products if they need to avoid particular ingredients and it is essential that any such claims are based on specific, rigorous controls to ensure their validity.”
Free from nuts + may contain nuts = misleading?
I discussed recently that “free from” claims are largely unregulated (see What does “nut free food” actually mean?). The FSA guidance may set out best practice, but it is voluntary. However, the guidance explains (at page 44) that section 15 of the Food Safety Act 1990:
“makes it an offence to falsely describe or present food. More particularly, it is an offence for food labelling to be false or likely to mislead as to the nature, substance or quality of the food.”
If a packet says “does not contain nuts” or “free from nuts”, and nuts have found their way into the food, is that a false description? Is it “likely to mislead” as to the nut free status of the food? I think so, at least in relation to the phrase “free from”.
Does “does not contain” only cover intentional ingredients?
Whilst at first glance the phrases “does not contain” and “free from” may appear to mean the same thing, there may be more of a connotation with “does not contain” that the manufacturer is talking only about intentional ingredients. We currently have “contains boxes” on many food labels. Although these will be axed from December, at present it’s common to see a box that states, for example, “CONTAINS: Milk, Wheat, Gluten” after the ingredients list. The contains box serves as a shortcut for consumers, letting you quickly dismiss a product if your allergen is listed in the box. However, the custom of the contains box deals only with intentional ingredients. So, could it be inferred from this that a “does not contain” label only refers to intentional ingredients and does not provide any comfort regarding accidental cross contamination?
It seems this is the view taken by several food companies. Take Kiddylicious, for example. The packaging for their Smoothie Melts states that:
- The product does not contain nuts and seeds AND
- They are packed in the UK where nuts and seeds are handled.
I’m very grateful to Karol for letting me know about this. Kiddlicious have explained to Karol that:
“the factory where the melts are packed do handle nuts and seeds. Therefore there is a risk, albeit a slight one of cross contamination. We have to state both on the pack so that we comply with UK legislation.
However, we are looking to change the factory so that the snacks are packed in a designated nut free zone but this will be towards the end of the year.”
The current label is an example of a company saying both “does not contain nuts” (meaning the ingredients) and, effectively, “may contain nuts”.
In a similar vein, BEAR say “No nuts but packed in a cave where nuts are stored”. So another statement about the ingredients and then a “may contain”-esque warning.
The moral of the story? If, like us, you are avoiding products with “may contain nuts” warnings, then keep in mind the need to look past “does not contain nuts” and “no nuts” statements. Companies seem to use these to refer to whether the ingredients include nuts. You may also discover a may contain warning on the pack or, even if no nut warning, that there IS a cross contamination risk if you speak to the manufacturer.
Free from… yet may contain
What about “nut free” or “free from nut” labels? It seems that some companies will also combine free from claims with may contain warnings. For example, Costa Coffee state that their new Chicken & Basil Salad Wrap is “not only gluten-free, but … also dairy-free”, yet the product label states it “may contain traces of milk”. See the Twitter thread between @CostaCoffee and @DairyFree for more details.
(The “dairy-free” statement is on Costa’s website, the packaging itself only refers to the wrap being “gluten-free”.)
I haven’t spotted a product labelled both “free from nuts” and “may contain nuts” yet. Are they out there? If anyone comes across one, please do post a comment below.
What do the experts say?
“Does not contain nuts” yet “may contain nuts”. “Free from nuts” yet “may contain nuts”. This seems like yet another may contain headache. To sound like a stuck record: surely deciphering food labels shouldn’t be this difficult for the allergic consumer?
I’ve asked the FSA for their advice on whether “does not contain” or “free from” claims plus may contain warnings can co-exist on the same packet. I will update this post when I receive their reply…