Sometimes you’ll see the words ‘may contain milk’ or ‘may contain traces of milk’ on food labels. Whether or not these products are suitable for vegans is a common question, and not all vegans agree on the answer.
What does ‘may contain’ actually mean?
If a product is labelled with ‘may contain milk’, it doesn’t mean that the manufacturers randomly add milk if they feel like it! What it actually means, is that the product doesn’t have milk in the ingredients, but it’s made in the same building as other products that do contain milk.
For example, in a factory that makes biscuits, the same machinery could be used to make vegan biscuits and biscuits that contain milk. A machine might make vegan biscuits in the morning and non-vegan biscuits in the afternoon. Although the machinery is cleaned in between jobs, it’s still possible that trace amounts of milk could end up in the vegan biscuits.
Can vegans eat food that may contain milk?
Most vegans are happy to eat food that is labelled as ‘may contain milk’, as long as it doesn’t have any animal substances in the actual ingredients. Any milk contained in these foods will be nothing more than a trace amount.
Whilst there is no legal definition of ‘vegan’, The Vegan Society defines veganism as “seeking to exclude – as far as is possible and practicable – all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals“.
As it’s so common for trace amounts of milk to appear in foods that come from a factory, most vegans accept that avoiding all traces of milk just isn’t practical.
Vegan trademarks and cross-contamination
The Vegan Society states that food that is labelled as ‘may contain milk’ is allowed to use the Vegan trademark.
To be allowed to include the vegan trademark, food manufacturers must strive to minimise cross-contamination from animal substances as far as is reasonably practicable. Sometimes, it’s not practical to 100% guarantee that something has never come into contact with milk. And that doesn’t make it not vegan.
Why is the ‘may contain milk’ label used?
The ‘may contain milk’ label is meant for people with allergies, rather than vegans.
Milk allergies can vary from mild to severe. People with very severe allergies can suffer serious allergic reactions after coming into contact with only trace amounts of milk. For them, allergen labelling could save their lives.
Do some vegans avoid food with ‘may contain’ on the labels?
Yes. Veganism is very much a spectrum and it is up to each individual person to decide what is acceptable for them.
In forums and Facebook groups, you’ll often see vegans disagreeing over whether certain things are suitable for vegans or not. There’s rarely a right or wrong answer. It’s down to personal preference as to how far you wish to go to avoid animal products.
There are some very strict vegans who choose to avoid anything labelled as ‘may contain milk’. But, if you’re new to veganism, this probably isn’t something you want to worry about just yet.
To conclude, most vegans choose to eat products that are labelled as ‘may contain milk’. Any milk that’s present in these products will only be tiny amounts, and they can still be labelled as vegan and carry the vegan trademark.
If you wish to avoid milk altogether, it can be to make your own meals and snacks from fresh ingredients and avoid anything that’s pre-packaged. That said, there are many vegan ready meals that are made in a dedicated vegan environment with no chance of cross-contamination.