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Vegan labelling: what’s the law?

Hot on the heels of 2019’s sausage roll success, Greggs has launched several new vegan products to coincide with Veganuary – a campaign which encourages people to go vegan for January. This year’s Veganuary looks to be the biggest yet with over 300,000 people signed up so far. As restaurants, supermarkets and retailers all try to cash in on the power of the vegan pound, we look at the requirements on businesses who want to label their products as vegan.

What is veganism?

Let’s start with the basics. What is veganism anyway? The UK Vegan Society’s definition of veganism is:

"…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."

Sounds straightforward, but how does the law define veganism when it comes to goods and services? Well, it doesn’t actually!

Labelling food products as ‘vegan’

Whilst there are numerous rules which govern product labelling for allergies, there’s no legal definition of ‘vegetarian’ or ‘vegan’ either at UK or EU level when it comes to food. The European Vegetarian Union, which has been lobbying for a definition since 2008, uses the following definition when describing vegan food:

“Vegan foods are not of animal origin and, at no stage of production and processing, has use been made of, or the food been supplemented with, ingredients, processing aids and other substances, whether in processed or unprocessed form, which are of animal origin”

Ingredients includes additives, flavourings, enzymes and processing agents (think of albumen or gelatine often used to filter wine and beer).

In the UK, guidance released by the Food Standards Agency in 2006 stated that “manufacturers, retailers and caterers should be able to demonstrate that foods presented as 'vegetarian' or 'vegan' have not been contaminated with non-vegetarian or non-vegan foods during storage, preparation, cooking or display”.

Non-food products

If you’re new to veganism, remember it doesn’t just apply to food! Vegans take great care to ensure all the products they use (such as shampoo, cleaning products, and make up) are free from animal derived ingredients. In 2018, make up brand Glossier was forced to apologise and refund customers for a mascara which was advertised as suitable for vegans, but contained beeswax.

Getting it wrong

There’s no requirement for food to be labelled vegetarian or vegan, but any information provided voluntarily must not mislead consumers or be ambiguous or confusing. For food and non-food products, consumer regulation in the UK requires that products are accurately described and fit for purpose.

Not only does getting it wrong risk affecting customer confidence in your brand, you might also be risking:

  • a claim under the Consumer Rights Act or the Sale of Goods Act for misdescription;
  • an investigation by Trading Standards in relation to any descriptions applied to product packaging;
  • an investigation by the Food Standards Agency or the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in respect of food products;
  • an investigation by the Advertising Standards Agency in relation to any promotional material used to promote the product.

Some of the above could result in a financial penalty or payment of damages or compensation. An unfavourable result might also necessitate an expensive product recall or the redesign of marketing materials and packaging.

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 an examination of your production line and supply chain. In the absence of a legal definition of ‘vegan’, the mark provides consumers with comfort that the product has met the Vegan Society’s standards. Any use of the mark must be authorised so it’s important not to use the mark without permission as such use would constitute trade mark infringement.

Summary

Until clear guidance exists, businesses 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.

About the writer: Sarah has been vegan since May 2016 and is a voluntary member of the Vegan Society’s International Rights Network. If you have questions about how to label your products or are interested in finding out more about how we can help your business grow and stay compliant, please get in touch.

 

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

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