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Do the phrases “may contain traces of” or “made in the same factory as” help you decide if the food is safe for your allergy?

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) these warnings may be hurting consumers more than they are helping. Starting in 2006, a U.S. law required that foods disclose in plain language when they intentionally contain highly allergenic ingredients such as peanuts or dairy. However, left out of the law are accidental-allergy warnings — for foods that might become contaminated because they were made in the same factory, or on the same machines, as allergen-containing products.

The FDA’s own surveys found the allergic pay more attention to warnings that a food “may contain” an allergen than those “made in the same factory” labels. Yet when University of Nebraska researchers tested nearly 200 products with various accidental-peanut warnings, they found that peanuts were more likely to have sneaked into products labeled “made in the same facility.”

The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network, an influential consumer group, counts at least 30 different ways that the warnings are worded — and consumers too often falsely assume that one food is riskier than another because its label sounds scarier.

It seems as though many manufacturers would rather attempt to avoid liability using broad and vague labeling, than implement and stand behind procedures that would make such labeling unnecessary.

So, what to do?

In Canada, health officials have recommended foods bear one of two labels: “May contain X allergen” or “Not suitable for consumption by persons with an allergy to X.” By limiting the manufacturer’s options to one of the two, at least, the company will be forced to take responsibility for ensuring their product does not contain any allergen, or label the product and face the consequences at the cash register.

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