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CTSI warns that lack of legal definition for vegan food could cost lives

Posted 07/07/23

The Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CTSI) has today published a report, “Vegan and Plant-based Food”, in which it warns that the lack of a legal definition for vegan food is potentially putting people with allergies at risk, as well as causing confusion for consumers and businesses.

There is currently no legal definition of whether food sold as vegan or plant-based can contain ingredients such as milk or other animal-derived products, leaving vegans and allergy sufferers in the dark about what is legally allowed in their food.

With around one in 20 (4.5%) of the UK population following a meat-free diet, CTSI has warned that it is more important than ever that consumers can be confident that if they decide to adopt a vegan diet, they can be assured that foods labelled as vegan do not contain animal-derived products. This can be a particular issue for people with allergies to animal-based products such as lactose.

Sampling data supplied by Hampshire and Kent Scientific Services showed several products labelled as ‘vegan’ or ‘plant-based' contained milk or eggs, meaning many people following a vegan diet are likely to have unknowingly eaten products derived from an animal. Milk and eggs are two ingredients that can cause severe reactions in allergy sufferers.

CTSI’s public polling has found that more than three-quarters of consumers (76.4%) incorrectly believe that food products labelled as vegan do not contain any animal products, even in very small amounts. However, because there is currently no legal definition of vegan food, there is nothing to prevent trace amounts of animal-derived products from appearing in food sold as suitable for a vegan diet.

The death of Celia Marsh in 2017 and comments made by coroner Maria Voisin in her subsequent report shone a spotlight on the devastating consequences of undeclared allergens. Marsh suffered a fatal anaphylactic shock after eating a wrap from Pret a Manger that was labelled ‘vegan’ but due to cross-contamination during the manufacturing process contained milk protein.

CTSI is calling for a new legal definition of vegan food to be created to ensure the rules are clear, and that any food manufacturer or restaurant flouting these rules can be held accountable. This would provide clarity for those with allergies, for example to milk or eggs, over whether or not food labelled as vegan is safe to eat.

Chief Executive of CTSI, John Herriman, said: “Our research reveals that many consumers mistakenly believe that when something is described as vegan or plant-based, it doesn’t contain any animal products. However, there is currently nothing in the law that requires this to be true.

“As well as causing confusion for consumers and businesses, the lack of legal definition could be exploited by unethical food businesses claiming foods are as vegan, when in fact they contain animal-derived products.

“Perhaps of greater concern is that this ambiguity can have disastrous and sometimes tragic consequences for those with allergies to animal-derived products, like milk and eggs. We are aware that people have sadly lost their lives because of this and are therefore calling for more clarity on what can and can’t legally be described as vegan and plant-based food.”

CTSI Lead Officer for Food and Nutrition, David Pickering, said: “As more consumers choose to eat food with no animal-derived ingredients it is important to establish what, as a society, we want that to mean. This research has evidenced that consumers think that food described as suitable for a vegan diet means it will be free of animal-derived ingredients. CTSI asks that this is reflected in the legal framework for selling food so that consumers can make informed choices and food businesses have clarity about what the phrase means.”

Trading Standards Officer, Jessica, said: “The rise in demand for foods sold or promoted as ‘vegan’ or ‘plant-based’ has soared in recent years. There has been a rise in complaints and incidents where consumers feel they have been misled by the use of such terms, for numerous reasons. There has also been an increase in those with animal-derived allergies choosing foods marked ‘vegan’ thinking they are safe for them to eat, only to suffer an allergic reaction. This shows a real need for a legal definition to give both consumers and businesses the clarity that is needed.”

CTSI asked the public about vegan and plant based food, and this is what they said - Vegan food - Vox pops - YouTube


Businesses looking for advice on their obligations in relation to food standards and safety can find free, easy to access business advice on Business Companion

Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CTSI)
The Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CTSI) is a national not for profit established in 1881 which supports the UK’s trading standards profession, and works to protect consumers and safeguard honest businesses. CTSI's members are engaged in delivering frontline trading standards services at local authorities and in businesses. www.tradingstandards.uk

Please contact CTSI Press Office: 07496 254934 pressoffice@tsi.org.uk for any queries.

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