We’ve recently learnt some concerning truths about vegan labelling in the UK, from an article in the Guardian. This article states that there are some UK vegan products which have been found to contain milk and/or egg! In fact, almost two dozen of these products, labelled as “vegan” or “plant-based”, contained traces of animal products.
What’s the law?
Perhaps surprisingly, there is no legal definition of the term ‘vegan’ in the UK. The Chartered Trading Standards Institute highlights that because “there is currently no legal definition of vegan food, there is nothing to prevent trace amounts of animal-derived products from appearing in food sold as suitable for a vegan diet.” This prevents businesses from being held accountable for allowing these trace ingredients to be included.
Although the ‘free from’ claim has no overall certification, there is legislation in place to protect those with allergies and dietary restrictions. The Food Standards Agency states that “the 14 allergens are required to be declared as allergens by food law”, as well as clearly highlighting these on packaging so that those with allergies are well-informed.
Furthermore, after the tragedy in which 15-year-old Natasha suffered an allergic reaction and passed away after eating a Pret baguette, Natasha’s Law requires all food retailers to display the full ingredients and allergens on all prepackaged foods (source: Natasha Allergy Research Foundation).
Why should this be different for vegan labelling?
What are the implications?
People with food allergies are reliant on labels to help them eat safe food. Many rely on the label “vegan” as meaning animal derivative-free and therefore safe to eat. Unfortunately, even Vegan Society or Vegetarian Society registration does not guarantee that products will be free from allergens like dairy and eggs to a food allergy standard.
What can you do?
Change starts with awareness. The original Guardian article* includes a direct quote from Maisie Stedman, a spokesperson for the Vegan Society:
“If the labelling is misleading, the consumer can complain to the trading standards, who would usually take the definitions of the Vegetarian Society and the Vegan Society and look to see if it meets those standards. If misleading advertising caused a consumer to purchase something they otherwise wouldn’t have, they can contact the Citizens Advice Bureau who will look at this in terms of consumer rights law.”
But whatever the wrongs of this situation, the message here is that if you have an allergy the “Vegan” label does NOT necessarily mean free from animal allergens. You should always check the label to see if the food is “free from” the allergen you need to avoid.