Dear Ireland, your “May Contain Nuts” warnings are driving me nutty

One of the big reasons my husband and I decided we were ready to head off to Ireland for a year — despite multiple food allergies!! — was the labelling here. Having an allergy outside of the top 10 (now top 14) is not easy, but we found that challenge a little more do-able due to (what we felt were) transparent ingredient lists and the availability of allergen menus in this country.

Another thing we thought was super fantastic was their “may contain nuts” warning. In Ireland, it is very unusual to see the term “tree nuts” on any packaging, and the Canadian in me initially assumed that these warnings included peanuts*.

This warning is on a lot of labels in this country, so at first, it felt like A LOT of products  were off limits to us. But while in search of some safe sweets, my husband did some Googling and learned that Cadbury’s products were safe for our son because, in Ireland, nuts actually mean… nuts!

*Yes, I know peanuts are a legume, but North American marketers tend to lump peanuts and tree nuts under the term “nuts.”

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I love Cadbury’s Nutritional Info page.

From that day onward, that was our understanding of ALL labelling, and it felt like our choices had opened up exponentially. The cereals we eat back home? All have “may contain nuts” warnings here. The *only* cracker that doesn’t have a sesame warning? May contain nuts. Cookies, chocolates? More may contain nuts. And we’ve been buying all of them without issue.

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So imagine my shock when a post in an Irish allergy support group I joined seemed to indicate that this warning could, in fact, include peanuts. I went and checked the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI), and it seemed to prove my earlier points. Among the list of 14 top allergens, the term tree nuts was not to be found. Nuts, however, was there — completely separate from peanuts (of course!).

Still, the worried allergy mama in me felt the need to follow up with the FSAI to ensure I was understanding their labelling and terminology correctly. I also posted in that same support group, asking if those who were allergic to peanuts — and not tree nuts — safely consumed products with a “may contain nuts” warning.

The responses I got were contradictory, and left me as confused as ever. While the FSAI responded with one of those “we can’t promise anything” type answers — gotta love those! — there were parents of peanut-allergic children in the support group who had been doing for years what we’ve been doing for the past month, i.e., buying “may contain nuts” products for their children without issue.

So what’s an allergy mama to do? Obviously, the more options the better. But I also don’t want to put my child in danger for the sake of convenience. It looks like I’ll need to start reaching out to companies (one of my least favourite things!) to see if their understanding of the word “nut” coincides with what is indicated on the FSAI website. Cadbury certainly gets it right! Why can’t other companies follow their lead?

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Thank you, Cadbury!

One thing that I don’t understand is why the FSAI won’t enforce a consistent use of the term “nuts” across the board here in Ireland. Seems like a (really dangerous) mistake just waiting to happen.

For now, I will continue to buy the “may contain nuts” products my son has safely consumed and avoid introducing any new ones into his diet until I’ve called. The whole thing is a recipe for nuttiness, I tell you!

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Update as of Friday, June 7th: I saw my first “may contain tree nuts” warning since coming to this country on what is — confusingly — another Jacob’s product. This got me worried that the “may contain nuts” warning on our only safe cracker did, in fact, include peanuts. But nope! After a call with the company, I learned that neither product has a risk of cross contamination with peanuts. When I asked why they use 2 terms (as it is confusing to consumers), the answer I got was because these items are made in different factories. That doesn’t seem like a very good reason to be me… but hey… at least the crackers are safe?!

Update – 4 hours later: I got another call from Jacob’s telling me they understood how this could be confusing and are making a note to ensure their labels are consistent in future. I have to say, I’m pretty impressed!

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This post was written by AllergyBites founder, Kathleen O’Hagan. Kathleen is a writer, a foodie, and the mom of a toddler with multiple food allergies. Want to help make a difference? Contact Kathleen about volunteering for the Top 10 Challenge fundraiser.


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