Labels “may contain” confusion

A “may contain” label on an otherwise gluten-free food has always made me a little nuts.

So I was glad to be able to cover the Food and Drug Administration’s hearing on advisory labels this week because it meant someone was going to start doing something about these pesky notations on foods.

When I’m in the grocery and I have one of those “Eureka” moments of finding a mainstream product that does not contain any wheat, barley or rye, I hate having it ruined by an aside that says something like, “May contain wheat,” or “Made in a plant that also processes wheat,” or “Made on a equipment that also processes wheat.”

What am I supposed to do with this information? Not buy the product?

Am I really supposed to worry that a fruit snack might be a threat to my daughter who has celiac disease because somewhere in the plant wheat might be used? And what should I make of products labeled “gluten free” that also have this kind of warning?

At the hearing I learned I have a lot of company in my confusion. It includes others with celiac disease, gluten intolerance, and food allergies. Many of us are playing a guessing game in which we try to figure out exactly what food companies are trying to tell us with these warning labels.

Consumer advocates at the hearing said people try to evaluate how risky a food might be based on the wording of the label. They conclude it is safer to eat something made in plant that processes wheat, for example, than to eat something made on equipment that processes wheat.

That makes sense to me.

But food industry representatives said the logic does not match up with the facts. One company that shares equipment might do a much better job cleaning it up than a company that has an allergen cross-contaminating the manufacturing plant.

So really, what are we, and the people with allergies who face life threatening reactions, supposed to do?

The first thing is to write to the FDA and tell them how big a problem these labels are in your daily life. Use personal stories, that always seems to get attention. You can send a letter by regular mail or over the Internet. (You’ll find both addresses on our website,, under the current events/newsflash section.) The deadline is Jan. 14, 2009, which means improvements aren’t coming in a few weeks or months, but at least there’s hope they are coming.

The FDA said it wants to know if labels are helpful to consumers. That’s an easy question to answer and the answer is “No.”