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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!