The phrase is often used by manufacturers on pre-packaged food to indicate the possible presence of ingredients, such as peanuts, that people may be allergic to.
As food allergies in Europe and the US continue to rise, according to allergy associations 8 per cent of children and 3 per cent of adults are affected, the labelling of potential allergens is of burgeoning importance - both for consumer and manufacturer protection.
New rules, cleared by Europe and set to enter into force in early 2003, saw crucial changes to the Labelling Directive 2000/13/EC, in particular the 25 per cent rule introduced more than 20 years ago to avoid inordinately long lists of ingredients on labels.
Under the new rules, food manufacturers will have to list all sub-ingredients of compound ingredients, which means that allergens cannot be 'hidden'. European consumers can expect to see food products donning the new labels on the supermarket shelves in 2005.
Despite the new laws, the UK's Food Standards Agency said on Tuesday that consumers had raised concerns over the way the phrase 'may contain' is used.
'It is said to be overused and can unnecessarily restrict choice,' said the FSA. 'There are also concerns that its unnecessary use on certain products undermines valid warnings,' the agency added.
As such the FSA is currently consulting on alternative phrases to 'may contain', the fruit of several stakeholder meetings and a focus group review of consumer attitudes. On the cards, 'Not suitable for peanut/nut/sesame allergic consumers,' and 'Not suitable for people with peanut/nut/sesame allergy'.
A report commissioned by the agency on the use of 'may contain' phrases found that the labelling of products that may contain nut traces is 'far from consistent' and, 'rather than being helpful for people with nut allergy, the labelling is often confusing and difficult to read and locate,' said the FSA.
According to the food safety agency, after consulting with stakeholders, the most 'appropriate alternative phrase' will be inserted into the agency's Clear Labelling Advice, under the section on ingredients listing information on allergens.
A voluntary scheme, 'manufacturers will also be encouraged to include additional information, explaining why the product is not suitable for allergic consumers,' said the FSA.