CTSI call for ‘vegan’ definition — but what about ‘free from’?

Last Friday saw the Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CTSI) release a report entitled Vegan and Plant-based Food in which it outlined the extent to which the public is confused about the meaning of ‘vegan’, and the worrying number of vegan-labelled products which contain traces of egg, milk or other animal derivatives. 

The report reveals three quarters of consumers (76.4%) wrongly believe food products labelled as vegan necessarily do not contain any animal products, even in very small amounts. This is one of the starker statistics to emerge from the piece, and although younger demographics seem better informed than older, there are no figures given for those with allergies or buying food for people with allergies. 

One third of foods labelled ‘vegan’ analysed by researchers were found to contain traces of egg or milk, indicating that the threat is real, and common, to people with food allergies. I enquired with the CTSI, but no additional data is available concerning how many of those products carried ‘may contain’ warnings or Vegan Society trademark symbols, both of which might impact the decision making processes of allergy shoppers. 

Interestingly, well over 60% of consumers were found to believe terminology typically associated with animal-based foods (e.g “milk” or “cream”, for example) should be reserved for non-vegan products only, perhaps indicating that the vegan community’s support for corruptions such as “mylk” and “sheez” has failed to gain public backing. 


What should ‘vegan’ mean?
As I’ve said before, I believe the word ‘vegan’ is for vegans to define. As it stands, the definition is centred around the intent not the material reality. If you mean to make a vegan product (no animals used), then it is a vegan product, even if it picks up non-vegan cross contamination along the way.

But this definition is only adopted by vegan advocacy groups, and has not been formalised in law — a matter which in England has been in DEFRA‘s in-tray for perhaps a decade. As I understand it, it was inherited from the Food Standards Agency, whose policy held that “vegan” should mean free from milk / egg, as the screenshot below, from their official 2006 guidance, which was archived in 2015, confirms. 

To my knowledge, this was never enforced in any way, and the policy appears to have been quietly dropped, without explanation.


Why are so many only hearing about it for the first time? 
I have been surprised at some of the startled reactions to the CTSI report. Although the figures are new, those of us in this game for some time have been discussing the problem for years.

I’ve been writing about it since at least 2014, as have other vegan / allergy bloggers such as Sarah Coleman, and to their credit The Vegan Society have been highlighting it too

I also wrote about the Food & Drink Federation’s move to dispel the confusion around this issue in 2020, when the risks were already being regularly highlighted.

But nothing changed then, either. 

Here’s hoping the latest news will be the trigger that leads to action, but I cannot hold my breath, as movement on this problem has been glacial. 

The CTSI has called for a legal definition for ‘vegan food’ — and I agree. But we need one for ‘free from food’ too. I won’t repeat arguments I made in my post It’s Time to Define

Once we have these in place — whatever they are — we can learn them, share the knowledge, advocate it, and challenge brands who get it wrong.

With a definition for ‘free from food’, we would have consistency in what should (and should not) be stocked in the supermarket free from aisle, thus avoiding situations such as the Galaxy vegan chocolate debacle — and thereby leading to a safer, and more secure, shopping experiences for many people on restricted diets, for whatever reasons, and for their families.

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