By Barbara Bolton, IVRA UK representative
Vegans are good at accumulating and sharing knowledge about products that are suitable for us, both those labelled “vegan” and those we refer to as “accidentally vegan.” If you’re a new vegan and join a vegan group on Facebook you will quickly learn about the wide range of packaged foods that are suitable for vegans (favourite discoveries include Oreos and the Co-op custard and jam doughnuts), and those that are not even although they may appear to be plant-based; for example, breakfast cereals that do not contain dairy but are nevertheless not vegan because the vitamin D3 added to them is derived from animals.
This sharing of information is very helpful, in that it makes veganism more accessible by opening up a wider range of options to vegans, and encourages companies to produce more products that are suitable for vegans. A lot of work goes into careful review of ingredient lists and clarifying things with individual companies, to ensure that the information shared is as accurate as possible.
However, at the end of the day we rely on the individual companies to provide accurate information. Are they doing so? Are they doing enough to enable us to live according to our convictions by avoiding, in so far as possible and practicable, contributing to the exploitation and killing of animals?
Asda Dairy Free Milk is Apparently Not Vegan
This week we have learned that a product that could be described as “accidentally vegan,” in that it doesn’t carry a specific “vegan label” but does not appear to contain any products derived from animals, may in fact not be vegan. Asda’s range of Free From, dairy free milks appeared to be suitable for vegans, although the packaging states only that they are “suitable for vegetarians”. This is common on many products that are viewed as “accidentally vegan” and the prevailing view has been that many companies avoid stating “suitable for vegans” where there may be a risk of cross-contamination; in fact most vegans are comfortable purchasing a product that does not contain any animal-derived ingredients but which is made in a factory where non-vegan products are made, raising a risk of cross-contamination.
Asda has apparently now confirmed that the xanthan gum used in its dairy free milk is produced using a fermentation process involving whey, a dairy ingredient. Xanthan gum is an ingredient in a wide range of products and the fact that it can be produced in a way that makes it non-vegan was not generally known among the vegan community.
Many vegans have consumed the Asda dairy free milks believing them to be suitable. We are all now concerned about the other products that could be affected by this new information about xanthan gum. A related situation arose when we learned that some apparently plant-based hummus isn’t vegan, as the lemon juice used is from lemons that have been waxed using shellac, a secretion taken from insects. It is also not possible to tell if alcohol is suitable unless it is correctly labelled “vegan,” as animals/animal derived products are often used in the refining process, which may not be apparent from the label.
What this brings to the fore is the fact that there is only so much we can do as vegans to ensure that what we are consuming has not involved the exploitation and killing of animals. Only the companies who market products and in turn their suppliers, who manufacture those products, can confirm if animals or animal-derived ingredients were used in the production. They hold the information, but we have the right to know.
Our Rights as Vegans
We have the right, under human rights law, to live according to our fundamental conviction that it is wrong to exploit and kill non-human animals unnecessarily. The European Court of Human Rights has recognised that diet can be a direct expression of convictions or philosophical beliefs. In order to live according to our protected conviction we need to know if the production of products involved the exploitation and killing of animals. Without reliable information we are left at a serious disadvantage and our ability to live in accordance with our convictions is hindered. We therefore have a right to this information.
In accordance with human rights law requirements, our governments should pass such laws as are necessary to require manufacturers and sellers to disclose in clear and certain terms on their products, if, when and how animals were used in the manufacture of those products. It is only by providing us with that information that we will be able to make informed decisions and ensure, in so far as possible and practicable, that we are living in accordance with our convictions.
Current Labelling Requirements
There are currently no labelling requirements for vegan products in Europe, and no legally binding definition of “vegan” (or “vegetarian”) for voluntary food labelling. Many businesses, including supermarkets, label their products “vegan”. This can greatly assist the vegan consumer, as it should be confirmation that there are no hidden animal ingredients not specifically disclosed in the list of ingredients; for example, many processed foods contain “flavourings” without specification as to what they are made form. However, this voluntary labelling obviously only assists if it is accurate. There have been a number of examples in recent years of products being labelled vegan that in fact contain dairy. For example, Mackies had to issue an apology for wrongly labelling their Cheddar crisps as “suitable for vegans” when they contained dairy as an ingredient.
Aside from these examples of clear errors, what confidence can we have in company’s own “vegan” labels? As there is no legal binding definition of “vegan” for the purpose of labelling food products, businesses who label products vegan are using their own definition and adhering only to their own rules about what is and is not “vegan.” If they apply their “vegan” label incorrectly they may not be in breach of any law, provided they have complied with allergen labelling requirements (discussed below).
There was no recall of the mislabelled crisps, presumably because MacKies took the view that they had complied with legal requirements by listing dairy as an ingredient, even although the “suitable for vegans” statement on their packaging completely conflicted with that.
European law requires businesses to provide certain information to consumers about their products, including a comprehensive list of ingredients and allergen information. This applies to pre-packaged foods and non-prepacked foods. Allergens which are ingredients in a product or which are used as a processing aid must be declared on the label, including eggs, milk and substances derived from milk, such as whey. Fish must be declared, but there is a specific exception for fish used to clarify alcohol.
Given that whey must be declared on the label if used as a processing aid, it is not clear why whey is not listed on Asda’s diary free milk products.
Non-food products can be labelled “vegan” or cruelty-free without any regulation and there are no allergen related requirements. Again, vegans have to rely on companies to appropriately label their products. Non-food products are suitable for vegans if (i) they contain no animal derived ingredients and (2) they were not tested on animals (as final products or the ingredients themselves). Vegans check the ingredients listed on products and consult the public lists of companies that do and do not test on animals in order to judge if non-food products are suitable or not. While it is good that vegans share the information they gather, it is highly problematic that labelling non-food products cruelty free or vegan is not subject to any regulation. As with food, we have the right to accurate information and companies ought to be required to confirm on all products if, when and how animals were used in the manufacture of a product, in order that we can make informed decisions and ensure we are living in accordance with our convictions.
Vegan Society Trademark
The Vegan Society has a trademark which can be displayed on products it has certified as vegan, in return for the business paying a fee. The process for certification is understood to be fairly rigorous, with the product checked by an experienced team against set criteria: that the product contains no animal ingredients, its ingredients have never been tested on animals and any processing aids used in the manufacturing process are vegan. They also assess the risk of cross-contamination, ruling out products where the risk is high, and registration is generally renewed annually to ensure information is up to date.
Vegans could limit themselves to only those products that carry the Vegan Society trademark logo. However, currently that would seriously limit the number of products available to vegans. It would rule out, for example, a lot of the newly launched plant-based food ranges. While it might be best to eat a diet consisting mainly of wholefoods and to prepare our own food, the reality is that many people find that they rely on pre-packed food to some extent and restricting ourselves to Vegan Society Trademarked goods would currently be quite limiting. Obviously if we cannot be reasonably sure that a non-trademarked product is vegan we will not purchase it; the issue is that we should not be limited to specifically trademarked products; all businesses should be required to clearly state on their products if, when and how animals were used in the manufacture of that product in order that we can make an informed decision.
European Labelling Initiative
The European Vegetarian Union (“EVU”) has been working for some time to encourage the introduction of a binding definition of “vegan” for the purpose of labelling food products, which would then be adopted and applied in all EU countries. They have pointed out that under the EU Food Information to Consumers Regulation 1169/2011 the European Commission has an obligation to introduce rules regarding food labelling for vegan products, including a binding legal definition of what is “vegan”. They note that the proposed wording is intended to be (1) sufficiently narrow to ensure the definition accords with vegan convictions, while at the same time (2) sufficiently pragmatic to allow it to cover products that do not involve animal use, although there could be a risk of cross-contamination. The proposed definition is:
“(1) Vegan foods are foods that are not products of animal origin and in which, at no stage of production and processing, use has been made of or the food has been supplemented with
– ingredients (including additives, carriers, flavourings and enzymes) or
– processing aids or
– substances which are not food additives but are used in the same way and with the same purpose as processing aids in either processed or unprocessed form that are of animal origin.
(3) A claim that a food is vegan … is not precluded by unintended presence in the food of products which do not comply with the requirements of paragraph.. 1… , if and to the extent that this is technically unavoidable at all stages of production, processing and distribution, despite appropriate precautions being taken in compliance with good manufacturing practices.”
The introduction of a mandatory definition such as this would greatly assist, if of course companies chose to label their products accordingly. If the outcome was that they stopped labelling things as “vegan” we would still have no access to the information we need in order to make an informed decision. A mandatory definition may, therefore, not be enough. We may need a corresponding requirement on businesses to declare on all products whether or not, and if so how, animals were used in the manufacture of the product. This should extend beyond food and cover all products.
Vegans should press their governments to recognise this issue and pass such laws as are necessary to address it, in order to ensure our right to live according to our protected conviction.
Whenever we refer to the human rights of vegans it is important to note that this is not about us. Veganism is the way in which we recognise, and live in accordance with, the rights of non-human animals. We can and should use our human rights to encourage positive change that will assist in promoting veganism, but in doing so we must always keep the focus on non-human animals.