'Vegan' labels don't always mean free from animal products

When one follows a vegetarian or vegan diet, they will often look for assurances that the product they are eating really is vegetarian or vegan: that is, that it contains no animal products, or at least no meat.

This is easier said than done. Despite the presence of on-pack ‘vegan’, ‘plant-based’ or ‘vegetarian’ claims, none of these terms are legally defined. 

Furthermore, many products that we may not consider to be in need of vegan labelling, such as fruit, may contain traces of animal-derived products.

Should ‘vegan’ be legally defined?

“In my view they should be legally defined, and the allergens that may well be within these products, there needs to be some sort of trace limit of that product that’s within the food product being sold,” said Conor Wileman, associate at law firm Browne Jacobson about the terms ‘vegan,’ ‘vegetarian’ and ‘plant-based’.

According to the Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CTSI)​, there is no legal threshold for the level of trace amounts of animal products that a ‘vegan’-labelled product can contain. Last year, an investigation by the Hampshire and Kent Scientific Services found that 39% of products labelled ‘vegan’ contain traces of egg or diary.

This lack of legal definition cannot only cause vegetarians and vegans to unintentionally consume trace elements of meat and animal products, but also cause people to consume allergens that they believe are not there. This can be life-threatening: Wileman used the example of the case of Celia Marsh, who died after consuming a wrap labelled ‘vegan’ that contained trace amounts of milk.