As someone eating vegan or dairy-free, you’re going to be reading a lot of ingredient lists. Some labels, however, can be confusing. One of the most confusing for many is “May contain milk” or “May contain traces of milk.”
What does “may contain milk” mean? “May contain milk” is a warning meant to help severely allergic customers. It means that, even though milk is not an intentional ingredient in that food or beverage, a small amount may be present due to processing on shared equipment with dairy products or accidental cross-contamination.
Below I’ll share some details on how this cross-contamination actually happens and what it means for vegans and those with food allergies. Should you avoid “may contain milk” foods or not?
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What Does “May Contain Milk” Mean?
Food companies often share processing facilities for economic reasons. When a label says “may contain milk,” that means the manufacturer produced that product in the same factory or on the same machines as other products that contain milk.
So while milk isn’t one of the ingredients, there may be “traces” of milk present anyway.
In addition to milk, you’ll see these “may contain” tags for other common allergens like nuts and soy.
The chances of a particular food actually containing whatever is in the “may contain” label are slim, however. The label is just there for those with severe allergies.
For this reason, vegans usually don’t worry about “may contain milk” or “may contain eggs” on food packages. These products are still generally considered vegan. More about that below.
What is Cross-Contamination?
In 2004, the FDA passed the Food Allergen and Consumer Protection Act, or FALCPA. Under this act, manufacturers have to list eight allergens in any food product that contains them: milk, soy, eggs, wheat, fish, peanuts, shellfish, and tree nuts.
Not only were manufacturers required to list if their food products had these allergens, but they had to be specific about some of them. For example, instead of merely saying a food item contains tree nuts, manufacturers have to be specific about which nut.
These labels help those who have food allergies to steer clear of these foods.
However, the FALCPA didn’t cover cross-contamination. The disclosure of cross-contamination possibilities is entirely voluntary.
Manufacturers have increased such disclosures, however, and more and more products have these labels to disclose possible cross-contamination.
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How Does Cross-Contamination Happen?
The most common cross-contamination occurs from machinery and facilities. Often, multiple manufacturers process their food products under one roof, or one manufacturer makes many different food products in one factory.
In such cases, a product that contains milk or eggs will be processed in the same building, or even the same machinery, as products without dairy.
All equipment gets thoroughly cleaned and sanitized between jobs. However, there is still always a non-zero possibility of cross-contamination. And people with severe allergies need to know about this possibility. Some allergy sufferers are sensitive to even the slightest amounts of an allergen being present in their food.
Cross-Contamination Can Occur Anywhere
Sometimes cross-contamination doesn’t even happen at the manufacturing facility. If a farmer grows different crops on the same field and harvests them with the same machinery, trace amounts could mix with other products.
Also, distributors may transport these products in the same vehicles and store them in the same facilities before delivering them to the manufacturer.
Should Vegans Avoid “May Contain Milk” Products?
Most vegans agree that eating “May contain milk” food is okay. Many times, a small vegan company won’t be able to afford to stay in business if they do not share equipment with products including dairy. And we should keep supporting those vegan businesses.
Avoiding such foods doesn’t punish the animal industry since they’re not making any direct revenue from these products (unless the company manufactures both vegan and non-vegan products).
However, this choice comes down to personal preference. If you want to take extra steps, you can research the producer to see whether or not they also produce meat or other animal products.
And of course, if you are a vegan with severe allergies or intolerance to milk or dairy, you should avoid foods with the “may contain milk” label for those reasons.
What Do Animal Rights Organizations Say?
What do organizations such as PETA say on this issue? According to PETA, the essence of veganism is to help reduce animal suffering and help animals. By avoiding visible animal products, every vegan can save over 200 animals a year from cruelty.
Avoiding a product with 0.01% of animal products in it does not serve the purpose of veganism—especially when it’s due to cross-contamination (beyond the control of the manufacturer).
Also, obsessing over these possible “traces” of milk can make vegans look crazy and make veganism look very hard. This can discourage people who are “on the fence” from going vegan themselves.
For more guidance on checking whether foods are vegan, be sure to see my full post on how to see if any food is vegan. I share my simple 3-step process for reading food labels to see if it’s vegan.
“Traces of Milk”
If you have a severe allergic reaction to milk or dairy in general, you should avoid “May contain milk” products. If you aren’t sure how severe your allergy is, you should consult your physician. A physician should be able to tell you whether trace amounts of milk would be harmful.
If you are vegan, you don’t need to avoid “May contain milk” products. The chance of them actually containing milk is very low, and you will not be helping the animals or the vegan movement by boycotting these products.
In conclusion, “may contain” labels are more about allergens than vegan and non-vegan ingredients. It’s just a growing practice among manufacturers to disclose possible cross-contamination for those who have severe allergies.
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