What is vegan?
The new food labelling laws in the UK have really given everyone a shake up.
I think it is valuable (and life-saving) to have clear, concise food labelling that works to hold manufacturers accountable. There are only benefits to be gained from stating any possible allergens on packaging.
But there is a but.
I think most vegan food should be left out of it.
Vegan food is vegan because of what has been purposively left out of the production and it doesn’t become non-vegan due to microscopic or unintentional cross-contamination. Of course, some vegans choose not to eat vegan food that has been prepared in close proximity to non-vegan food but the reality is that the vast majority of plant-based, processed or manufactured food comes into contact with non-vegan particles.
Government agency DEFRA is currently (until Friday) soliciting feedback from interested parties in relation to changes to vegan and vegetarian food labelling advice and guidelines.
It is all one giant grey area as far as I can tell, but I think this is the deal:
The current guidelines state (in part) ‘the term ‘vegan’ should not be applied to foods that are, or are made from or with the aid of animals or animal products (including products from living animals).‘
The upcoming revised guidelines are difficult to predict, but some vegans believe a loosening of definitions will occur. For example, Plamil is urging their customer base to object to any clarifications or changes to the existing guidelines for fear it will ‘allow for frequently high levels of contamination in vegan food.’
They think ‘vegans should be treated like the rest of the population, expecting good manufacturing and supply practices with robust risk assessment to assess the labelling of their food.’
I’m not convinced that a revision to the guidance is instantly a bad thing for vegans.
Plamil chocolate is made in a 100% vegan environment. It is vegan, but is it more vegan than a dairy-free chocolate made in the same factory as a dairy product? As long as equipment is cleaned thoroughly and all care is taken to avoid cross-contamination, I believe a food product made with no intentional animal products is vegan.
I want my vegan products to be labelled as vegan when they have no intentional or known non-vegan ingredients. Do you know what I mean? It is a little confusing.
Here are some examples:
- When The Gallery Cafe was cooking vegan burgers in the same oil as cheese, the burgers were in effect being cooked with animal fat. I don’t think this is vegan. The ingredients making their way to the consumer were known to include non-vegan elements and the cafe changed their cooking method when pressured.
- When the Tesco bourbon biscuit spread is made in a factory that also handles dairy milk, the vats are throughly cleaned before switching between dairy and non-dairy preparation. Due to the nature of milk proteins, microscopic remnants of dairy can remain on the equipment. I think the bourbon biscuit spread is vegan. The manufacturers have done what they can to not include animal products in the vegan spread and no intentional or known ingredients have been added.
Vegan labelling on food does not mean it is safe for people with severe allergies. It means no known animal ingredients have been purposively included and it should reflect this fact.
I would welcome labelling guidelines that promoted this kind of understanding. I think the guidance should mean a product does not contain purposively-added ingredients of animal origin, has not been prepared with non-vegan ingredients and all reasonable effort has been made to control cross-contamination.
What do you think? Should ‘vegan’ on a label mean only food made in a sterile, plant-based environment only? Or should ‘vegan’ be more in line with my suggestion of ‘vegan to the best of their knowledge and ability’?
Surely the former would see the end of vegan menus being offered by mainstream chain restaurants and a rapid decline in vegan labelling by supermarkets across the UK.