Treating allergens differently from other potentially dangerous contaminants has encouraged a proliferation of 'may contain' style warnings on food that are difficult to justify, according to one food law expert.
Speaking at an allergen management conference last month (see story on facing page) Neil Griffiths, a consultant and former chairman of the Society of Food Hygiene and Technology, said: "No one would put 'may contain listeria' or 'may contain salmonella' on their products. But pathogens can kill people too, and you can't absolutely guarantee that your products won't contain them - or indeed any other contaminants, such as glass.
"All you can do is follow the appropriate risk management procedures to ensure that you have done as much as is reasonably possible to ensure that they will not end up in your product. And this would form the basis of a due diligence defence in court. The same applies to allergens, and yet there is this perception that liability is different."
He added: "I'm not saying 'may contain' statements are never justifiable, although I would like to think we could reach a point in future where they are phased out. I'm just saying that some manufacturers are using them as a substitute for good practice."
Retailers such as Tesco had ditched 'may contain' in favour of more specific statements such as 'made in a factory that uses nuts'. But this was not any more helpful to consumers, he suggested. "If the net result is that you don't buy the product in either case, I can't see the difference."
Waitrose, Tesco and Marks & Spencer agreed that they all had different policies on 'may contain' labelling. But they insisted that such statements were only permitted where suppliers had demonstrated a genuine risk of cross-contamination that could not be controlled.