‘Less (meat) is more’ initiatives and plant-based dining are gaining ever more momentum, as demonstrated by Veganuary signups which grew a whopping 75% over the past three years (from 2020 to 2023). Therefore, your food offering has never been more likely to include plant-based and vegan options, but when it comes to labelling food as ‘vegan’ or ‘plant-based’ what is the law?
Demand for vegan food
The UKs lack of clarity surrounding vegan and plant-based labelling is surprising. We’ve had clear guidelines for allergen labelling in place since 2021, as set out by Natasha’s Law (more on this below). Meanwhile, the UK market for meat substitutes is the largest in Europe, worth in excess of 10 billion Euros and still growing. Furthermore, one in 25 people now identify themselves as vegan (meaning that they do not consume any animal-derived food products or ingredients (Statistica)). Meanwhile, flexitarians, vegetarians, and vegans are now so prevalent that 41% of consumers in the UK are currently following some form of nutritional rules.
Penalties for misleading consumers
Although there is no legal definition of the term ‘vegan’, General Food Law requires businesses to offer food that’s safe and does not mislead through labelling or presentation.
In 2020, the Advertising Standards Association upheld a complaint against a series of three advertisements for Burger King’s ‘plant-based Rebel Whopper’ burger which used the tagline, “100% Whopper. No beef”. The ASA felt that consumers would expect the product to be free from animal-derived ingredients or allergens. However, while the ‘burger’ patty was plant-based, it was cooked on the same grill as meat counterparts and the finished product included an egg-based mayonnaise.
Consumer confusion around vegan labelling
When it comes to vegan food labelling, there is a disconnect between consumer perceptions and the law. The CTSI discovered that 76.4% of consumers believe food products labelled as vegan do not contain any animal products. Legally however, traces of animal-derived products can quite lawfully appear in foods sold as vegan - regardless of ethical or medical needs - which is why the CTSI, amongst others, is now calling for greater transparency.
Vegan and Precautionary Allergen Labelling
Whether consumers are seeking out vegan food for cultural or ethical reasons, or require safeguarding due to allergies and intolerances, the need for clarity on food labelling is evident because, in the worst case scenario, the consequences of mislabelling can be fatal. A point tragically highlighted by the tragic death of Celia Marsh in 2017, who went into anaphylactic shock after eating a wrap which, while labelled ‘vegan’, contained milk protein due to cross-contamination.
Under Natasha’s Law, which came into effect in 2021, food businesses must declare the presence of 14 of the most common allergens either verbally, through signage or, where an item is pre-packaged, through labelling. The legislation states that celery, gluten-containing cereals, crustaceans, eggs, fish, lupin, milk, molluscs, mustard, peanuts, sesame, soya beans, tree nuts, and sulphites must all be listed in bold. Despite this, the Food Standards Agency, warns consumers never to assume that foods labelled as vegan are free from allergens due to the regularity of incidents of low-level cross-contamination during the production processes.
So how should I label vegan products?
The FSA states that “caterers need to be clear about this (cross contamination) risk in the food you provide”, and many vegan-marked products will also feature voluntary precautionary allergen information (PAL) indicating the potential presence of animal-derived allergens. The FSA also recommends that food and drink providers carry out a risk analysis assessing the likelihood of cross-contamination within its food supply chain and production to help determine whether a PAL should also be applied to labelling. For example, ‘may contain milk’ messaging will indicate the potential of cross-contamination with cheese or butters. In addition to this, ‘Not suitable for consumers with a milk allergy’, messaging may also be added to labelling.
Meanwhile, the Vegan Society recommends that food businesses should adopt “sensible and reasonable practices in food storage, preparation, and cooking”, including not using the same appliance for both meat and vegan products because of the real risk of cross-contamination. Therefore, caterers seeking to describe products as suitable for vegans must avoid cross-contamination to ensure descriptions are accurate.
How can we help?
Our Labelling Masterclass includes advice from Erudus on Allergen Management in the Kitchen (along with a wealth of other info and guidance for creating legislatively compliant labelling).
In terms of labelling, with its “Vegan” message and clear leaf design, our green and white Vegan Sticker makes your offering stand out on the shelf. Alternatively, our labelling software, LabelLogic Live is a fuss-free way to manage your food labels. At the touch of a button, you can add ‘plant-based’ or ‘vegan’, (not to mention any other messaging) to your labelling. Add all your nutritional data too - including the full ingredients declaration and allergens in bold - with the option to access datasets from thousands of branded items and wholesalers. What’s more, this user-friendly app keeps your food labelling up-to-date whatever new legislation, (such as Halal Labelling), is introduced safeguarding compliance and your business.
Shop Vegan Labels here.
Watch our Labelling Masterclass here.
Discover more about the award-winning LabelLogic Live here.