'May contain' labels are too ambiguous and lead to a lot of food recalls, say experts. (Shutterstock/Stokkete)
With millions of Canadians suffering from food allergies and intolerances, a new study suggests food labels could be clearer.
The study by the Agri-Food Analytics Lab and Food Allergy Canada, in partnership with market research firm Caddle, found that 25% of Canadians claimed they have at least one food allergy and/or intolerance. Of these Canadians, the study authors estimate that 2.5 million to 3.1 million have at least one food allergy and 6.8 million to 7.4 million have at least one food intolerance.
When those with food allergies were asked how their condition was diagnosed, 41.3% of respondents said an allergy expert had diagnosed their condition, 22.4% said a non-allergy expert or a physician diagnosed their condition, and 36.2% said they had self-diagnosed their condition.
For those with food intolerances, nearly half (48.1%) said their condition was self-diagnosed, 25.5% said they were diagnosed by an allergy expert, and 26.4% said they were diagnosed by a physician.
Among Canadians with a food allergy or intolerance, 46.3% believe food products are properly labelled, 27.8% believe food products are not properly labelled, and 25.9% are not sure. In the foodservice sector, only 27.7% of respondents with a condition believe menus properly indicate allergens.
“We’re certainly concerned about how information is conveyed to consumers, especially for those who order a lot of food online and that food is delivered to their homes,” says Sylvain Charlebois, director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University. “Labels aren’t necessarily as comprehensive when you get food delivered to your home and that seems to be one issue that is coming up more and more often.”
On the food manufacturer side, Charlebois says ‘may contain’ labels are “very ambiguous, which also leads to a lot of recalls.” The study notes that 35% of food recalls in 2020 in Canada were due to the suspected presence of undeclared allergens in food.
Jennifer Gerdts, executive director, Food Allergy Canada, notes that roughly 40% of respondents don’t believe grocers have enough options for people with allergies or intolerances.
“This could very well be because the [products] are peppered with ‘may contain’ statements. So, it’s confusing for consumers and it’s making food choices difficult.”
The issue is that the ‘may contain’ label is intended to be a risk communication for food manufacturers, indicating to consumers that it’s possible there is an unintended presence of an allergen. However, Gerdts says there are no specific requirements from Health Canada around using ‘may contain’ labels—they just have to be truthful and not misleading.
“So, there has been an absolute proliferation of ‘may contain’ statements in the marketplace,” she says. “Consumers are making the decision at the shelf and have to [wonder]: is it possible this ‘may contain’ label is true, or is this company putting the label on to cover legal liability?”
Food Allergy Canada is currently working on an initiative with the food industry, academia, healthcare and government to address the problem and make ‘may contain’ more meaningful and clear to consumers, so they can make more informed food choices.