So when a food label says “may contain tree nuts,” what exactly does “may” mean?
Like a lot of fine print, it can all be a little disquieting. No matter how colorful or zippy or tantalizing the packaging, that one little “may” is enough to cause pause, signaling, it seems, some sort of complicated industrial operation whereby the manufacturer can’t even be certain what’s in the product they’re selling.
But, of course, if you’re one of the estimated 15 million Americans who suffer from food allergies, "may" maybe more than a little ominous. While food companies have moved toward a policy of clearly labeling products that might contain the most common food allergens, the complexities of large-scale food processing have made it hard, if not impossible, to catch them all.
In just the last two months, the Food and Drug Administration and food companies have issued 20 recalls because of “undeclared allergens” in specific food products, according to a report by ABC News. Among the products were Chicken of the Sea tuna (undeclared soy), two kinds of Wegmans brownie mix (undeclared milk), and two kinds of ice cream (undeclared pecans).
“It's a very difficult topic to find a perfect solution for,” Dr. Scott Sicherer of the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital tells ABC News. “Companies can always make a mistake and have recalls if a product is found to have a mislabeled ingredient in it. Unless someone gets sick from it, they wouldn't know it was there.”
Which again begs the question: How would the manufacturer not know it was there if they’re the one making the product?
Since March 2009 there have been more than 400 recalls for undeclared allergens, according to ABC News. A federal food labeling law passed in 2004 requires that packaging fine print declare the presence of the top eight food allergens, which account for an estimated 90 percent of food allergies, including eggs, fish, milk, peanuts, shellfish, soy, tree nuts and wheat.
But one specific challenge (and a product of the mass industrialization of the food supply), is cross contamination. That’s where the same facility (i.e., factory) is used to make both the allergen-free product but also varieties that contain known allergens.
"If you can buy it with almonds in it or buy it plain or buy it with peanuts in it, it's better to watch out," another allergist tells ABC News. Chocolate and candy, therefore, can be particularly hazardous for those who suffer from tree-nut allergies.
Which brings us back to an old axiom: Buyer beware.