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Vegan labelling: what’s the law?

Veganism soared in 2018 and as many as 300,000 people are expected to take part this month in “Veganuary” – a campaign which encourages people to try vegan for January. With restaurants, supermarkets and retailers all trying to cash in on the power of the vegan pound, we take a look the requirements on businesses who want to label their products as vegan.

So you’ve set up a vegan business, or maybe you’ve diversified your product line to appeal to a growing vegan market, the next step is to decide how to go about advertising and labelling your products to ensure you reach your intended customers.

What does the law say about labelling products as ‘vegan’?

Well, not much actually! Whilst there are rules which govern product labelling for food allergies, there’s no legal definition of ‘vegetarian’ or ‘vegan’ either at UK or EU level, although the European Commission has stated it will begin the process of creating a legal definition of vegetarian and vegan food this year. It remains to be seen whether the UK would adopt any definition set by the EU following Brexit; regardless, any products which UK businesses export into the EU would need to conform to the new labelling requirements so watch this space.

In Germany, Consumer Protection Ministers have already established a definition of ‘vegan’ which they apply when carrying out food monitoring. The definition, whilst not legally binding, states that a product may be labelled as vegan if substances of animal origin have not been added at any stage of the processing. This includes additives, flavourings, enzymes and processing agents (think of albumen or gelatine often used to filter wine and beer). There’s some flexibility in the definition in that a product won’t be considered in breach of the definition if the presence of such substances was unintentional and could not be prevented which means there is a potential defence for manufacturers who do not thoroughly investigate the provenance of their raw ingredients and how they were processed.

Without a legal definition, many in the UK fall back on the Vegan Society’s definition of veganism;

"…a way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; […] In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals."

But until clear guidance exists on what is possible and practical, manufacturers are left to decide for themselves when to apply descriptive labels such as “suitable for vegans” or “vegan friendly” meaning the use of such terms is likely to be inconsistent at best and misleading at worse. It’s important that you know your target consumers and take into account what they might expect to understand from your use of the word ‘vegan’ or any other descriptions such as ‘plant based’. Last year the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) ruled that Pret a Manger’s use of the word ‘natural’ in relation to bread which contained several E numbers was not in line with consumer’s expectation of a product which claimed to be ‘natural’. By extension, any product which claims to be ‘natural’ or ‘wholly plant based’ must be able to substantiate those claims.

Whatever wording you choose to use, it’s important that you do not mislead consumers. Under the Consumer Rights Act 2015, it is an implied term that goods sold by their description must match that description. The presence of animal ingredients in a product labelled as suitable for vegans would be a breach of this term and could lead to claims by consumers. These claims may not be worth much individually but could take up time and resources you don’t have; you may also need to recall or repackage your products, which can be costly. Last year, make up brand Glossier was forced to apologise and refund customers for a mascara which was advertised as suitable for vegans but which actually contained beeswax. Dairy alternative brand, Co-Yo, was also forced to recall several of their vegan yoghurts in February 2018 due to the presence of trace amounts of milk protein (something which has more serious consequences given the potential for the product to cause an allergic reaction). Having to recall products could damage consumer confidence in your brand and your retailers or suppliers may reconsider their relationship with you as a result. If you are a vegan retailer, you should consider requiring an indemnity from your suppliers if the goods aren’t suitable for the supplied purpose. If you are a supplier or manufacturer, you should consider trying to limit your liability for product recalls if possible.

What else can I include on packaging?

There are additional certifications and marks you can display on your products to show it has been designated as suitable for vegans. For example, you can apply to the Vegan Society for a licence to use their trade mark on your goods. Before being granted a licence, the Vegan Society will thoroughly inspect your product from start to finish, including a thorough examination of your supply chain. In the absence of a legal definition of ‘vegan’, the mark provides consumers with comfort that the product has met a particular standard. Any use of the mark must be authorised so it’s important not to use such marks without permission as such use would likely constitute trade mark infringement.

Whether you need help with your supply terms, understanding consumer regulations or registering a trade name or trade mark – we can help. If you are interested in finding out more about how we can help your business grow and stay compliant, please get in touch with one of our Commercial team.


These notes have been prepared for the purpose of an article only. They should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice.

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