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Food Label Warnings Seen As Confusing

That echoes an FDA experiment that found wording matters in persuading allergic consumers to believe the warning.

But are the warnings real? Nebraska's Taylor tested 179 products that bore a variety of accidental-peanut warnings, and found 7 percent did contain peanuts _ some of them traces, but some enough to seriously sicken.

That's a small proportion. But Taylor is quick to note he only tested samples from two batches of each product. Test more _ say the first batch of oatmeal cookies packaged after the machine was supposedly cleaned of peanut butter cookies _ and that number may grow.

Moreover, contrary to some parents' beliefs, peanuts were in some products with every version of the label, including two of 51 foods that bore a "may contain" warning and seven of 68 labeled "made in the same facility."

On the other hand, the allergy network is increasingly concerned that foods that never before carried warnings suddenly are getting them _ including puzzling ones, like canned vegetables with nut warnings _ a trend perhaps fueling confusion.

"We're seeing every week an increase in the number of these 'may contain' statements on products you wouldn't expect to see them on," says network founder Anne Munoz-Furlong, whose group is pushing FDA and industry for new labeling standards.

"Don't ignore it, because you don't know when it's true," she tells consumers.

The industry is "troubled by what appears to be an increased use of 'may contain' labeling," says Regina Hildwine, labeling policy chief for the grocery manufacturers. "This is not just something that you should put on a package without thinking."

Penny Ackerman of Bethlehem, Pa., is strict about label reading to protect her 3-year-old son, Gregory, who is severely allergic to peanuts and has a milder tree-nut allergy.

But, "we even have to watch labels we didn't used to," she says with frustration.

On a recent grocery trip, Ackerman didn't notice until she got home that the chocolate chips she had always bought with confidence now warned they were made in a factory that uses peanuts. She wonders if the change is because of a new factory, or just that the company hadn't gotten around to labeling until now.

"If you don't see it on the label, is it safe or is it not safe? Because you don't know."


EDITOR'S NOTE _ Lauran Neergaard covers health and medical issues for The Associated Press in Washington.

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