Vegan claims and allergen free

The Food and Drink Federation has just published guidance on ‘allergen free’ and vegan claims, with the stated aim of informing both the food industry and consumers of the difference between them and “to dispel any misunderstanding that a vegan claim automatically means a food product is safe and suitable for an allergic consumer”, rightly reminding us in the process that the two sets of claims are aimed at two different consumer groups.

You can read the guidance here. It is short — only two pages — non-technical and crystal clear. 

The guidance has been welcomed by the Food Standards Agency, the Anaphylaxis Campaign, and the Vegan Society

Following the case I reported last month of Galaxy Vegan chocolate — which is certainly not ‘free from’ — being stocked in the free from aisle at Tesco, I too welcome the issuing of this document. Perhaps large retailers who are in danger of losing sight of what the ‘free from’ aisle is supposed to be about and for whom it is supposed to be for will sit up and take notice. They need to. 

There’s a lot I like about the guidance document, including:

1/ The point is made that it’s not only milk and egg allergic people who ought not be reassured by a ‘vegan’ statement — but fish, crustacean and mollusc-allergic people too. A Vegan Society spokesperson told me some years ago that they wouldn’t rule out licensing their Trademark symbol to a brand whose product warned of a cross-contamination risk with seafood products.

2/ I really like the VEGAN ≠ ‘No Milk’ graphic. I think we need more of that. Perhaps some signs in ‘free from’ aisles?

3/ There’s a reminder that ‘dairy free’ does not imply ‘egg free’, and the wise point that ‘milk free’ is clearer and less confusing. (I’ve wondered for some time whether we should do away with the word ‘dairy’ in food allergen contexts. I think we should.)

4/ In the absence of ‘free from’ limits for food allergens or food components — as we have with gluten at 20ppm / 0.002% — a ‘free from’ claim ought to only be made when scientific detection limits for the allergen in question allow verification that levels are low enough to be safe.

But … I’m still unsure about the issue of actual legality of a vegan claim appearing with a ‘may contain non-vegan-food’ claim. As the guidance states:

“There is no legal definition of the term ‘vegan’ in UK or EU law, however General Food Law requires food to be safe and for its labelling or other presentation to not mislead consumers.”

When I spoke to the Food Standards Agency five years ago about this very issue for an article for the Foods Matter site, their Food Safety Policy Division spokesperson told me explicitly that it was indeed considered misleading.

Well, if it was misleading then, is it not still misleading now?

In all the discourse about this subject, there still seems to be a skirting around of this very obvious stumbling block. The FDF guidance touches upon it, but doesn’t answer it.

And let’s remember this: unlike the Vegan Society, The Vegetarian Society‘s vegan accreditation does NOT accept products with ‘may contain milk’ or ‘may contain egg’ — so there appears to be disagreement on this issue even among the animal ethic charities. 

DEFRA are now charged with developing general food labelling guidance post-Brexit, including for vegan and vegetarian labelling; it will be interesting to see what they finally come up with, and how much influence the Vegan Society might end up having on the outcome. 

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