Food labelling is currently governed by EU labelling law, but also needs to fit with the international standards set by the FAO/WHO, whose basic tenet for food labelling is that it must not mislead. This is generally straightforward, but in the case of any food labelled as suitable for vegetarians or vegans, it must be suitable for both groups and there are some confusing issues.
EU Food Labelling specialist Stephen Pugh explains: “The UK government provided guidance in 2006 to help clarify some of the issues arising from, for example, what constitutes suitability for vegetarians and what is permitted in a vegan diet. The guidance does need updating to reflect regulatory changes, but by and large the UK’s guidance is the best practice standard for labelling foods as suitable for vegetarian and vegans across Europe.”
Stephen Pugh continues: “Issues around what constitutes a vegetarian diet depend on the individual – some consider eggs as unsuitable whilst others draw the line at fungi. The main point is that consumers needs to be reassured that products labelled as vegetarian should not contain any meat-derived ingredients and that the information on the label must ensure sufficient information to enable them to make an informed choice.
“The problem for vegan labelling arises from hidden ingredients such as the fining agents in wine and some other alcoholic drinks. Sometimes, but not always, the haze produced from yeast is cleared using egg protein or isinglass (made from the protein in fish swim bladders). These do not need to be labelled if the protein is not present in the final beer or wine, but an animal product has still been used in the production of the wine and therefore it would not be suitable for someone following a vegan diet. Unless a pre-packaged food is specifically labelled as being suitable for vegans, its suitability would need to be investigated.”
Stephen Pugh concludes: “If you are responsible for Vegetarian and Vegan Labelling, the message is that consumers must have complete confidence in your labels, so make sure you label correctly to provide the full confidence consumers need and want – and no shortcuts!”
Stephen Pugh has recently spoken about Vegetarian and Vegan labelling in the Houses of Parliament to the All Party Group on Vegetarian and Veganism.
Stephen Pugh was head of the food labelling team in the UK’s Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) until March 2016. He represented the UK during the negotiations on the EU’s Regulation on the Provision of Food Information to Consumers (FIC). He has worked in the field of food labelling for UK governments for just under 10 years and is now a course coordinator in the Commission’s initiative Better Training, Safer Food, where he is the training co-ordinator and lead tutor on general food labelling.
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