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 thinkvegans 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.

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Written by fatgayvegan

  1. Interesting post. As it stands, many manufacturers are using the term ‘vegan’ in a way which means it may appear on a product which is not suitable for those with allergies to egg or milk. However, ask those with food allergies and many will tell you they assume vegan implies egg/milk allergy safe, and current FSA guidance suggests it should be so. I don’t think vegan offerings will disappear off menus or shelves if this is tightened and enforced – but an alternative term will be needed, such as ‘no non-vegan ingredients’. I’m still not 100% sure how I feel about all this, but I suspect those in favour of relaxing the term will ‘win’. Will be interesting, either way!

  2. I agree with your definition, and would only include that ingredients or products should at no point be tested on animals.

    I understand the concern about contamination; I live in South East Asia and generally manage to live vegan easily, but I do dread to think of how many times I’ve inadvertently consumed fish sauce that’s been added to my dish (possibly just been paranoid – I’m sure I would taste it haha!). The thought of it really upsets me because, even though it was only a few years ago that I still at animals, I now find the idea of eating them so physically repulsive that if I suspect any animal products have been added to my food I actually feel ill. I’m sure I’m not alone.

    But, that being said, there is an important distinction to be made between accidental contamination where animal products are wrongfully added to a vegan meal, and accidental trace elements of an animal product being found in produce because the same machinery is made to make non-vegan and vegan goods.

    If I were in charge I would label a product vegan if it contains no animal products in the ingredients (or processing stages), with an additional statement of whether the product was made in a 100% vegan environment or not. Then those of us who are comfortable eating the ‘may contain traces of..’ products can continue to do so, and those who are uncomfortable risking any contamination will be able to choose products which they know were made in a vegan factory.

    • I totally agree with this. I think the reason why there are so many options now for vegans is the willingness of non-vegan companies to produce foods suitable for us. I would be worried if a company stopped producing a vegan product for fear of accidental contamination.

  3. I completely agree. The only non-vegan products labelled as potential cross contamination at the moment are allergens (eg milk, egg, fish etc) so any and all other animal products could also be a cross contamination risk – but just are not labelled as such. I am more than happy to have a product labelled sfv if shared equipment is used or the products are produced in the same factory as non-vegan items. That does not change the ‘vegan-ness’ of the product in any way.

  4. Agree Sean, great post. Surely we want to continue to encourage non-vegan manufacturers to at least trial and transition to plant-based products – allowing them to use in full ‘vegan’ labelling so they can see how well their product sells and continues a transition. Plamil could provide additional labelling that stated ‘made in a completely animal-free environment’ to it’s packaging, which would be welcomed by all. But we don’t need to change the current guidelines. I’d just urge all food manufacturers to ensure that they look at their 14 allergens and label those correctly. eg ‘Vegan’ doesn’t mean free of milk allergens. We will be sending our comments to Defra also.

  5. I think you are missing the point. It doesn’t read as if Plamil are saying that all Vegan food cannot be made by non vegan companies using shared equipment. All they are asking for is the guidance to remain as it is. That is, if food has added animal products it should not be labelled vegan. A couple of years ago Sainsbury’s recalled its vegetable samosas not because they were contaminated with chicken but because they had milk (an allergen) as an ingredient and milk and this was not on the label. If we do not have strict rules who know what we will be eating.

    • Actually this is what Plamil believe Jules. They have said on numerous occasions prior that they believe a product that may contain traces to be not vegan. It’s a counter-productive form of elitism. Most likely just to boost their brand.

  6. I agree. I read labels to determine if any animal ingredients were deliberately included in the product. But if it says ‘may contain traces of dairy’ then I am still OK with buying that product. I think ‘was that dairy deliberately placed in that product for me to buy it? and did I participate in the chain of events that caused the exploitation of a dairy cow?’

    As vegans we encourage the production of foods that don’t contain animal products by buying those products and not buying the others. As a result we encourage companies that produce animal product free items and the more we do it, the more those items will increase. If we try to maintain a standard that is too hard to meet, then we will see our options reduced.

    I actually disagree with the Gallery Cafe example. The cheese is in the veggie burgers deliberately. By buying a cheese veggie burger you are saying ‘I want to participate in the cycle of cow exploitation that produces cheese’. But by buying the vegan burger that is cooked in the same oil, you are saying ‘I don’t want to participate in the cycle of cow exploitation.’ The action of buying the vegan burger at that restaurant does not send a message that you want more cheese to be made, whereas if you buy the one with cheese you are sending the message that you want to buy more cheese in the future.This is how I always think of it when I’m making decisions about what to buy.

  7. I also agree that allergen and vegan labelling should be separate and distinct. If a very strict vegan also wishes to avoid the risk of cross-contamination, so be it – read the allergen label too.
    As a vegan fortunately without allergies I wish to avoid animal products which feature as a purposive ingredient AND products which have been used purposely during the manufacture but may not pose an allergy risk in the finished article. Combining the two denies the differing requirements; keeping them separate only provides the chance for a highly quality of information that can be layered.

    • Sorry – to clarify, I’m in favour of “relaxing” the vegan label to allow cross-contamination.

  8. I completely agree with you, for me the whole point in being vegan is to not eat animal products, as most products are made in a non vegan environment, I am happy if companies clean their pipes before making the vegan items. You are buying the product without an intention of any animal products being in it.

  9. I agree with you. I think the key to a product being vegan or not is ‘intention’. Cross contamination does not make a product non-vegan as it doesn’t intentionally have animal ingredients added and none suffered in order to produce it.
    I looked at the DEFRA notes yesterday & think they are as clear as mud! They seemed to be proposed outlines for guidance rather than the actual guidance and my only fear is that food manufacturers and caterers will get fed up with it all or be unable to follow and adhere to what’s proposed and we’ll lose out in labeling terms.
    In a perfect world I’m sure we’d all love to buy products that are manufactured in 100% vegan facilities, but until then I agree with what others here have said – us buying from a mix of companies drives demand for vegan products and can only be a good thing.
    It was interesting that Plamil highlighted it as I’ve had personal criticism from them recently for promoting products made by non-vegan companies. They critisised my organization the Vegan Lifestyle Association for listing Beeches Fine chocolates – who make vegan and non-vegan ranges. I explained my position on it as I have above and will continue to, as this also fits with my belief in making the vegan lifestyle as easy as possible for people to adopt and therefore attracting non-vegans into the lifestyle. [NB they declined a listing with us!] I’d say we’re looking at the bigger picture of what’s best for animals & humans long term, whereas perhaps they, as a business facing increasing competition, seem to have a slightly different agenda.
    Chantal Denny

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