What does “may contain milk” mean?

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As a vegan, I regularly pick up a product which is not clearly labelled, scan the ingredients and find that it is vegan, yet also notice that the product states that it ‘may contain milk’. This is a confusing term, as if a product has no apparent traces of milk in its ingredients then how come it ‘may contain’ it? This particularly confused me when I first went vegan, and tried to avoid all these products. Fear not, for generally when a product says this it’s merely to cover the manufacturers back, and the product itself is very very unlikely to contain any milk at all.

Generally, what this means is that the product has been created on an assembly line alongside other products which do contain milk, or perhaps created using the same machinery. This machinery is usually thoroughly washed before using it to create vegan products. This tends to be for the case of lactose intolerance – severe lactose intolerance may be triggered by the slightest trace of milk in a product, and the reaction could be fatal. As a result, you can be pretty confident that any product you buy which ‘may contain milk’ will rarely contain a trace of the stuff, and this is definitely good news for vegans. The manufacturer is merely stating that in case of an allergic reaction.

Nevertheless, some manufacturers choose not to label products which may contain milk as vegan. A key example which springs to mind is the Co-Op, and their own brand products. Co-Op clearly state which of their products are vegan, and there are many. However, there are actually a huge range of products (such as some cereals) which do not state that they are vegan, but upon inspection actually are. They just contain the usual ‘may contain milk’ statement near the ingredients. I suppose that I should be thanking the Co-Op for making it clear which of their products are vegan, and being so careful about it. After all, if a product contains even a trace of milk then it’s not technically vegan, and they’re steering me away from these products.

However, I am an ethical vegan. I am not lactose intolerant. Would it annoy me if I accidentally ate something with milk traces in it? Yes, it would. But, honestly, what annoys me more is that the Co-Op have gone to so much effort to label their vegan foods and yet I still have to suffer the boredom of scanning ingredients on those products which I’m confident will be vegan in order to be sure. If a product is 99.9% likely to be vegan, then I would call it a vegan product. As an ethical vegan, what’s important to me is where I place my money. I make every effort to avoid buying non-vegan products as I do not want to support the meat and dairy industries. By buying a vegan product which accidentally has the slightest trace of milk in it I do not believe I am supporting a negative industry. In fact, I am showing support for a vegan product. As Vegan Action puts it “Our motivation is working to end cruelty to animals and we don’t feel that avoiding trace amounts of animal products in vegan foods helps end animal suffering” (http://www.vegan.org/campaigns/certification/index.html). So, in my opinion, don’t take any notice when a product says ‘may contain milk’.

Perhaps you disagree though, in which case please do comment to let me know your feelings!


15 responses to this post.

  1. I don’t think lactose intolerance reactions can cause death. What you mean is milk allergy.


    • I was going to point this out as well – lactose intolerance and milk allergy are not the same thing. Lactose intolerance usually just results in, um, gastric disturbance, whereas a milk allergy can cause very severe (and potentially fatal) allergic reactions. Might be good to edit the post to avoid spreading confusion/misinformation.

      Other than that it’s a good post! Thank you!


  2. Posted by flouncel on February 24, 2011 at 9:45 am

    Ah right, I’m no expert on either so kinda lumped them together here. Thanks for informing me!


  3. Posted by Mary on March 12, 2012 at 10:15 pm

    Thank you! I see that all the time and figured it was just to cover their butts on the allergy people, like the people that think they are going to die because a peanut butter sandwich is a mile away. Thanks for confirming this as I too am an ethical vegetarian/vegan.


  4. Posted by chris on July 24, 2012 at 11:21 am

    The ‘may contain traces of milk’ note is a legal requirement for things produced in a factory that makes milk based products also. There can be some cross contamination, but it is ridiculously small. I am looking to get a non dairy product made and it is very hard to find anywhere that can do it that does not also do milk products. The machines go through an industrial cleaning procedure between batches. The trace element amount that I have been quoted is a maximum (note max.- it may be 0) of 6mg per kg of milk. What do you think about that? If you know that does that stop you buying it as a vegan? What about as a vegetarian?


    • Hi Chris, thanks for your thoughts. As an ethical vegan, the trace element does not concern me. I am not buying into the animal products, and whilst I’d rather they did not contaminate my foods it’s not a problem if I do eat a tiny trace element of cow’s milk. If I was vegan for other reasons (e.g. allergies) then I would not eat those products. What’re the non-dairy products you’re looking to make?


  5. […] post saying it was vegan.  Then I Googled whether food that may contain milk is vegan.  I found this blog post, and I liked her reasoning and explanation so I ate a few dark chocolate covered […]


  6. Posted by Riri on March 30, 2013 at 9:50 pm

    What does it mean if there’s no milk products listed in the ingredients but at the end it says “contains milk products”? As a recent ethical vegan I’m wondering about this. Saw it on some “cheese” slices at giant tiger


  7. Riri, for me, if I know that milk wasn’t needed to make the product, I would eat it.


  8. Posted by dj on June 27, 2013 at 7:01 pm

    Vegetarian (not vegan) cheeses often contain casein (pronounced k-seen), the second most abundant protein cow’s milk. For people with milk allergy or milk protein intolerance (MPI) casein is generally the culprit and should be avoided at all cost. If youare aspiring towards veganism casein “must” be avoided.


  9. Posted by Ellen on September 4, 2013 at 1:46 am

    I will put such a product back on the shelf and look for another. For me it can be compared to saying “may be pregnant.” Either you are or you ain’t.


  10. Posted by kay on October 11, 2013 at 10:16 am

    Thank you very much this clears things up a bit as my daughter has become a vegan and even though the ingredients states no milk, there was a bit on the packet that would always says may contain milk which was confusing and she would not touch it making the weekly shop more difficult.


  11. Posted by moose on February 25, 2018 at 3:29 pm



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