The food industry needs a framework for vegetarian and vegan product labelling 

Clare Daley
February 1, 2023
5 min read
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The food industry needs a framework for vegetarian and vegan product labelling 

Meat-free and plant-based meals and snacks are one of the fastest rising food revenue opportunities. And while many purchasers are people who want to make more eco-friendly choices, a significant percentage are fully practising vegans and vegetarians. 

But committed consumers may not be aware that there’s no legally binding definition of what makes a product suitable for vegetarians or vegans; meaning they could be eating and drinking things that don’t completely align with their convictions. 

Ingredient ambiguity is also making it harder for food and beverage brands to label products correctly – and this compliance ‘grey area’ has led to industry bodies calling for greater clarity. 

What does “suitable for vegans” and “suitable for vegetarians” mean? 

In general, we understand that vegetarianism is only eating products that don’t contain animal flesh, while vegans consume no animal-derived substances at all. However, these broad terms don’t work in the context of food regulation and compliance. 

At the moment, there is no formal legal definition of exactly what makes a food or beverage suitable for vegans and/or vegetarians – either across the EU or in the majority of its member states (with the exception of Poland). And this is causing product labelling ambiguity. 

In response to this issue, two major industry bodies - FoodDrinkEurope and the European Vegetarian Union (EVU) – have joined forces to campaign for a legally binding definition of vegan-friendly and vegetarian-friendly goods that can be used consistently across food and beverage packaging. 

Why do vegetarian and vegan foods need clearer labelling? 

Without a detailed definition in place, food and beverage brands are free to interpret vegan and vegetarian suitability on their own terms. For example:

  • Some brands may class a product as ‘vegan’ if it doesn’t contain any animal derived products or honey, but non-vegan products have still been produced in the same facility

  • Other brands may only deem a product ‘suitable for vegans’ if it’s been produced in a facility that avoids handling non-vegan raw materials

  • There may also be brands that find a middle ground, manufacturing both vegan and non-vegan foods in the same facility while putting specialist cleaning protocols in place to avoid cross-contamination of production lines 

Deep dive: what’s the opportunity in plant-based food and beverages? 

The ambiguity surrounding vegetarian and vegan-friendly production processes explains why many pre-packaged foods without animal-based ingredients aren’t marked as being suitable for vegans. For example, ready salted crisps produced in a factory that also makes crisps with flavourings containing milk or egg. 

There is also confusion as to whether products should be labelled as vegan or plant-based. Many food brands prefer the latter term because it’s more appealing to consumers who want to eat fewer animal products without going fully vegan. However, plant-based doesn’t necessarily reflect the conditions under which those foods were produced – so it’s not helpful to those following a strict vegan diet. 

Are there any countries with clear vegetarian and vegan product labelling in place? 

If we were having this conversation a year ago, the answer would be yes – look to Asia as a vegan labelling leader. 

Since 2018, food and beverage brands in Indonesia have been able to use a vegan logo on products, to denote they do not contain any ingredients derived from animals, or honey. To be accredited with this logo, DNA analysis needed to be conducted on each product by a government-approved laboratory.

That being said, there are examples of other Asian regions increasing their regulatory framework around vegan and vegetarian-friendly production practices. In September 2021, The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) announced plans to introduce a definition for what products can be labelled suitable for vegans. 

Clearer instructions have been welcomed by animal-conscious consumers in India, as at the moment products containing bone char and isinglass (a gelatine found in fish) can still be classed as vegan.

What would industry-wide vegan and vegetarian labelling mean for food & beverage brands? 

Before we look at the world, let’s first think about Europe, where it’s easier to introduce a multimarket framework. An EU-wide definition of vegetarian and vegan suitable products would be hugely helpful to food and beverage brands trying to manage international compliance, logistics and marketing. And FoodDrinkEurope and the EVU have already suggested what that definition should be.

The two organisations propose that items “suitable for vegans” should contain no products of animal origin, including additives, flavourings and processing aids. The same rule applies for vegetarians, with the exception that dairy products, colostrum, eggs, beeswax, propolis, lanolin and honey can still be included.

Crucially, FoodDrinkEurope and the EVU suggest that the presence of non-vegan or vegetarian ingredients in products as a result of production, processing and distribution does not impact their labelling status – provided good manufacturing practices are in place and appropriate precautions have been taken. 

If this definition is adopted, it will benefit food and beverage brands in two ways: 

Firstly, the fact that non-vegan or vegetarian foods can still be produced in the same facility means brands can label many more goods as “suitable for” – which will provide a welcome revenue boost, given there are around 79 million vegans in the world

However, there is still a legal and ethical responsibility to prevent cross-contamination where possible, so food and beverage companies may need to publish information on their manufacturing practices to reassure consumers that they are being vigilant in their approach. 

Secondly, if a single piece of legislation is adopted across the EU, food and beverage brands can follow the same guidelines in all member states. This will make it much simpler to produce consistent, compliant packaging for European markets. 

And this is where we come to the world view. 

If multiple countries adopt a common framework for vegan and vegetarian product labelling, that wording could easily become the template for other regions. And more territories using the same legislation makes it easier for food and beverage brands to keep pace with international compliance, ensuring their products are suitable for vegetarians and vegans worldwide. 

Hooley Brown helps brands to create compliant product labelling for every market you operate. Get in touch to discuss your needs or follow us on LinkedIn for more industry news and views. 

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