Why Vegan is not always Dairy Free: Part II

It’s almost a year since I wrote a blog on why a ‘vegan’ declaration on a food or drink may not necessarily mean in practice that the product was safe for those with milk (or egg, or fish) allergy.

Following on from that post, my editor at Foods MatterĀ Michelle Berriedale-Johnson asked me to write an article on the issue. I agreed, and started to research the subject in more depth. The piece has just been published on here.

Montezuma chocolate: 'vegan' between allergen warnings

Montezuma chocolate: ‘vegan’ between allergen warnings

Do read it, if only for the thoughtful comments from Plamil’s Adrian Ling. A summary, in point form:

1/ Many manufacturers make ‘vegan’ claims alongside a ‘may contain dairy traces’ type disclaimer

2/ The Vegan Society don’t take issue with this – on the contrary, they may well license their trademark to such manufacturers – because their definition of ‘vegan’ reflects products being free of ‘intended’ animal-sourced ingredients, not necessarily free of all traces.

3/ But the FSA say this combination of statements is ‘misleading’

4/ Under long existing food law, it’s illegal to mislead

5/ DEFRA – now responsible for vegan / vegetarian labelling – have not been keen to comment on the illegality or otherwise of such claims

6/ Many consumers assume either that such labelling is acceptable – or that vegan means milk-free and allergy safe.

7/ There are claims that Trading Standards Officers / Environmental Health Officers are too busy to do anything about the issue.

8/ Nothing has been done …

Why did it take me eleven months to write the piece? Because sometimes work gets in the way, and life gets in the way, both of which apply.

But it’s also true that delays occurred waiting for both DEFRA and the FSA to comment fully on my questions on the subject. Both have no doubt been overworked, especially the FSA dealing with EU FIC, but it proved difficult to get a straightforward yes-or-no response to the seemingly uncomplicated question of whether or not it is illegal to label a food both ‘vegan’ and ‘may contain dairy / egg traces’. With the former being responsible for vegan and vegetarian labelling, and the latter for allergy labelling, each referred me a couple of times to the other – with DEFRA, as you can see from the article, declining to make any meaningful statement whatsoever.

Problems aside, my feelings on the issue have been shifting since last year. In the previous post, I argued that we should work to better communicate the fact that ‘vegan’ does not necessarily mean ‘dairy free’ or ‘egg free’ on food labels.

But now I’m leaning towards thinking that ‘vegan’ should indeed encompass those terms (as far as is measurable), and that an alternative term – ‘no non-vegan ingredients’, perhaps? – should be considered when trace contamination is possible. I recognise, however, that this would have huge impact on, for example, the Vegan Society and their trademark.

In recent weeks, having apparently realised that the issue had to be addressed, DEFRA have announced that the 2006 guidance on use of the terms vegetarian and vegan is to be rewritten – and have invited public comment on the planned outlines.

As far as allergy is concerned, there is an additional request to comment on the issue of precautionary allergen labelling used alongside vegan and vegetarian claims. I would urge all to consider commenting on this, especially if it concerns them directly. You have until 8th May, and can send views to labelling@defra.gsi.gov.uk.

A good summary of the DEFRA consultation can be read on the Food Law Blog here.


  1. sugarpuffish

    I welcome guidance being rewritten because as you know being a vegetarian with a milk allergy I find may contain labelling frustrating. From the ethical viewpoint I would rather Vegan food came with as little trace of animal products as possible.

  2. Alex G

    Thanks, Sarah. I agree it's good it's happening. Just wish the fact that comments are being encouraged by DEFRA was more widely known! It doesn't seem to be well publicised.


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