For those with special dietary requirements, scanning the ingredients list on the back of packaging is a regular occurrence. If that list includes milk or eggs, it seems obvious that a vegan would have to return that product to the shelf; however, what is the procedure when the label lists a non-vegan item under the ‘may contain’ portion of the ingredients?
When a foodstuff is labeled with ‘may contain’ it’s because there is a chance of cross-contamination by a substance not declared as an ingredient, for example, Oreos ‘may contain milk’ and some pasta ‘may contain eggs.’ Cross-contamination typically occurs as a result of products sharing factory equipment or by way of the gloves of workers, or by other means. Sometimes companies can use a variation of ‘may contain,’ such as ‘made on equipment that also processes…’ and ‘made in a factory that also handles…’ to try and explain where the contamination has originated from, yet, this doesn’t reveal anything about its severity.
Such labeling is really intended for people with acute food allergies, where even the smallest number of rogue molecules could make them extremely ill, or even be fatal.
However, this does show that if you are someone who wishes to be completely vegan, there is a chance of you consuming a small amount of animal product if you eat ‘may contain’ foods. For some, this is enough to class the item as inedible, with others also arguing that they would rather spend their money supporting completely vegan companies and factories.
The Vegan Society describes veganism as “a way of living that seeks to exclude all forms of exploitation, and cruelty to, animals.” As the non-vegan materials in ‘may contain’ products are present accidentally, purchasing them is not increasing the demand for animal exploitation, and therefore, can be seen as vegan. Additionally, the contamination is often no worse than could occur in a kitchen that is shared with non-vegans, for instance, eating your soy ice cream in a bowl that once held dairy.
As detailed by the Food Standards Agency (FSA): “it’s not a legal requirement to say on the label that a food might accidentally contain small amounts of an allergen.” Nonetheless, many companies choose to do so in order to protect customers with a food intolerance or more cynically, to protect themselves from litigation. In some cases, this appears to have led to companies being overzealous with their labeling when in reality a 2014 survey from the FSA emphasized that the presence of contamination was only a possibility. Upon examining 1,000 supposedly risk-containing products, around half of them contain the allergen in question. This further suggests that it is unnecessary for vegans to avoid ‘may contain’ products, as often they don’t actually contain the animal derivative anyway.
In the end, it is down to personal preference if you eat ‘may contain’ products as a vegan, but ultimately, as they don’t increase the demand for animal agriculture, there is certainly nothing wrong with doing so.
Author: Catherine Davey