Labeling of vegan foods: what the law says

Demand for vegan and plant-based food is growing, as is choice – sales of meatless food are expected to hit £ 1.1bn over the next three years. With the trend showing no signs of slowing down, more manufacturers are now considering introducing vegan and herbal products in response.

From Beyond Meat and Impossible to mainstream brands such as Nestlé which reviews vegan “shrimp” and “eggs”, and Cadbury which reviews a vegan version of the Dairy Milk bar, there are many resources aimed at this growing field.

The Vegan Society registered 14,262 new vegan products in 2019, up almost 50% from the previous year.

Consumers are adopting this approach to food, and it is based on a number of concerns about sustainability, ethics, perceived health benefits, and environmental issues. The Dimbleby report, which will help inform the national food strategy, calls for, among other things, the consumption of more fruits and vegetables.

Vegan and vegetal: what’s the difference?

The term “vegan” refers to those who aim to eliminate meat and dairy products from their diet, but also to those who exclude from their life any product (whether it is food or shoes) if it is. contributed to cruelty or animal exploitation.

“Plant-based” tends to refer to diets comprising foods derived from plant sources such as fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts, whether for ethical reasons or as part of perceived benefits for the health of this way of eating.

They are different in their scope and appeal to consumers who all have their own position on the wide range of vegan and plant-based diets.

This of course completely ignores cultured meat and the use of insects as sources of protein – an area that will likely require its own descriptions and vocabulary.

Join the market

All foods must comply with the legislation in which the product is intended to be marketed, regardless of the source of the food.

At one end of this market, we have innovators who produce by microbial fermentation using fungi, yeasts, bacteria and other microorganisms, instead of animals, to those that replace the “meat” element. by a vegetable protein.

New processes and techniques – and indeed new sources of ingredients – may mean that the food is ‘new’ and needs to seek approval through the novel foods process for the EU and now for the UK. Uni also.

Some of these “new things” may not mesh with consumer perceptions that “vegan” or “plant-based” is an ethical or “healthy” option. What if the ingredients were derived from soybeans? Or are genetically modified elements used in the process?

Product information

Assuming regulatory hurdles for novel foods have been cleared, the product should be safe, as with any typical food. It must be clearly marketed to sell and give the consumer enough information to make an informed choice.

Inaccurate or misleading claims on labels can attract disputes and also hinder a brand’s success.

Many foods have a reserved description that should be used if the product meets specific requirements or if there are compositional standards associated with a food. When a consumer has purchased a food with a particular name and expects a specific product within the past 30 years or more, the name is now common and any deviation from the expectation should be clearly stated.

Name the products

Naming products or ingredients can be a minefield for those who are not used to the law. Reserved descriptions should be used and any deviation from consumer expectations should be clearly indicated. For example, the regulations state that you must indicate what a product is and not what it is not (so “no chicken” or “XX – alternative to meat” would not be compliant if it was. used as the name of the food).

Dairy terms – milk, cheese, butter and yogurt – are protected and should only refer to products derived from animals (with a few exceptions, eg butter beans, peanut butter, custards). This has been reinforced recently and we are now seeing phrases like “soy drink” or “fermented specialty almonds with raspberries” and “slices of food made with coconut oil”.

Meat terms do not have the same high level of legislative protections, although steps have been taken to try to provide these protections in both the EU and the US.

The use of the word “alternative” may indicate what the product is supposed to be and its purpose to help the consumer make an informed choice, but this may conflict with the restrictions on the use of dairy terms. For example, “milk” in “alternative to milk” may not be consistent, however, “a great alternative to milk when baking a cake” can be positively encouraged.

Historical precedent

Despite all of this, the UK has a long history of product names that might not be as expected. At first glance, ‘Lard Végétal’ was deemed acceptable in 1987 and was not misleading. We have been consuming turkey ham and turkey bacon for so long that it has become accepted (although ham is the back quarter of a pork and bacon comes from the back, belly, or sides), as well. that ‘I can’t believe this is no butter’.

It is important to take into account the technical requirements of the legislation, but it is essential to avoid misleading the consumer and to ensure that they have enough information to make an informed decision. Describing the use of the food allows the consumer to understand how to use it – “use as an alternative to…”.

It could be argued that current legislation requires this descriptive information to appear near the name of the food so that consumers can know the true nature of the food.

It is also important to consider the potential risk of cross-contamination from animal products – potential animal sources of additives and ingredients are not always apparent. Many meatless production facilities will actually seek to prevent staff members from bringing in a lunch that contains meat to reduce any risk of cross-contamination.

Health claims

“Plant-based” is not synonymous with “healthy” and food manufacturers should be wary of making bold claims about the health benefits of their products. Controls on nutritional and health claims must always be observed. Additionally, the presence of many more legumes in the diet may in itself be a problem, with some evidence indicating that allergic reactions to these ingredients may increase due to the exposure of more consumers to these ingredients. .

The test of time

There is currently no legal definition of what a vegan product is in the UK or EU, and even the smallest detail – like the use of natural flavors or the type of glue used on them. labels – may affect the decisions of some consumers.

Many organizations have their own definition of vegan and procedures for ensuring compliance, with some performing regular in-depth audits to ensure the process continues to meet their definition. Consumers should be aware of the different definitions and what they may mean for their personal perspective on the vegan or plant-based lifestyle.

However, the Food Information Regulation, which covers the EU and the UK, contains a provision allowing the EU to add additional definitions if necessary. There is now an ISO standard relating to technical definitions and criteria for vegan and vegetarian products. Regulators are also focusing their attention on the market, with the aim of protecting consumers and ensuring a level playing field.

Expert advice

Be aware of the technical requirements for your intended product, from concept to marketing. He must be sure. Product information should be provided correctly and meet specific requirements such as dairy and compositional standards that overlap with names, but the overall presentation of the food information should not be misleading.

At one time, the replacement of meat with plant material was the subject of legal proceedings, but it is now being encouraged in a positive way – as long as it is not misleading.

Pete Martin is Regulatory Director at Ashbury, Specialist in Product Information.


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Tanya S. Norvell