'May contain nuts': Allergy sufferers are being let down by the growing use of vague warnings on food – Dr Gwenetta Curry

Going out to eat or taking a family trip is usually something most people are excited to do and look forward to in summer or holiday seasons.

An allergy warning notice displayed next to food in a branch of Pret A Manger (Picture: Yui Mok/PA Wire)

Unfortunately for people who suffer from food allergies, there are several considerations that must be taken before leaving the house, like checking the menu online prior to going to a restaurant to ensure there’s something you can eat.

According to Allergy UK, “95 per cent of people living with food allergy would feel more confident eating out at a food outlet that was recognised by Allergy UK’s Allergy Aware Scheme.

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Also, if you suffer from extreme allergies, you have to be sure to bring your epipen just in case you are accidentally exposed to an allergen. Peanuts and tree nut allergies have become a major public health problem over the last 20 years. In the UK about two in 100 children and about one in 200 adults have an allergy to nuts, with the number continuing to grow.

Across the UK, all prepacked food requires a food label that displays certain mandatory allergy information. It is required by law that food products containing any of 14 allergens must be listed and emphasised in the ingredients list by using a different font, style, background colour or by bolding the text.

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These measures have been put in place to ensure that allergy sufferers can confidently consume the food they purchase without fear of a severe reaction.

Food companies and businesses are allowed to use the phrase “may contain” to let customers know that there may be small amounts of an allergen in a food product. This is considered “precautionary allergen labelling”.

While there is a clear need to have an option for food producers to use the “may contain” labelling options when there’s risk of cross-contamination, more should be done to ensure this doesn’t happen.

This may not seem like a major issue to those who do not suffer from food allergies but viewing menus on cross-country train rides as well as airplane menus, there can be very few items that do not say “may contain nuts”.

And when reading this allergy statement, one question continuously arises: what kind of nuts? Peanuts are actually legumes but are included in the “nuts” label.

It would be helpful if places were required to name what nuts the products “may contain”. Some people are allergic to all nuts while others are only allergic to peanuts.

Companies or restaurants are plastering the “may contain” caution on everything to prevent being responsible for someone having an allergic reaction. This results in severely reduced options for those who suffer with food allergies.

Better manufacturing practices to ensure cross-contamination does not happen would reduce the use of the “may contain” statements. And better labelling – where it is not possible to separate products with allergens – would help reduce the anxiety that allergy sufferers experience when they purchase food in restaurants, stores and on public transport.

Imagine being on a six or seven-hour flight and all the food “may contain” nuts or gluten. These are real experiences that allergy sufferers are faced with anytime they decide to eat away from home, like many people do regularly.

Dr Gwenetta Curry is an Edinburgh University lecturer on race, ethnicity and health

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