The Food and Drink Federation (FDF), supported by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) has published new Guidance on 'Allergen'-Free and Vegan claims.
Currently, the making of a voluntary positive claim such as these would require substantiation and a higher duty of care to consumers but the Guidance is a useful benchmark as to the remit of responsibility for each claim. Each claim communicates to different consumer groups, with only the allergen absence claim being food safety information.
It is stated categorically within the Guidance: "‘Allergen’-Free & vegan are separate claims. Each communicates different information and are aimed at different consumer groups. Only ‘Allergen’-Free claims can be used as food safety information by consumers."
The Guidance clarifies that a food product labelled as ‘suitable for vegans’ may not be appropriate for certain allergic consumers due to unintentional cross-contact with allergenic ingredients of animal origin.
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. Food labelled as 'vegan' should not be made from or with the aid of animals or animal products. In certain cases, due to manufacturing processes, a vegan product may be unsuitable for allergic consumers who react to certain animal ingredients (e.g. milk) and a suitable precautionary allergen statement should therefore be used (i.e. ‘may contain milk’). Precautionary allergen
labelling is voluntary and should only be used after a thorough risk assessment and where the risk of unintentional allergen presence is real and cannot be removed.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) intends to develop updated guidance on vegan and vegetarian labelling as part of their review of food information following Brexit. The European Commission is also looking to regulate this further under the Food Information to Consumers Regulation.
The 2018 European Vegetarian Union (EVU) guidance, supported by FoodDrinkEurope, states that ‘the (potential) presence of inadvertent traces of non-vegan or non-vegetarian substances should not be an obstacle to labelling a product as vegan or vegetarian’, ‘as long as reasonable measures are taken to prevent contamination’. The Vegan Society's Vegan Trademark can also be applied to foods carrying a ‘may contain’ statement providing that there is robust evidence to show the risk of cross contamination has been effectively managed.
At present, there is no legal definition of what constitutes ’Allergen’-Free / Free- From (except for gluten-free) and making such claims is not mandated in legislation. These claims are therefore used on a voluntary basis, however are regulated in accordance with General Food Law requiring the provision of safe food. A ‘Free-From’ allergen claim is an absolute claim and must ensure the absence* of the allergen and should only be used following a rigorous risk assessment of the ingredients, process and environment of the product’s whole supply chain. Finished product testing should be performed to verify the efficacy of these controls.
*In practice, for ‘Free-From’ allergen claims, ‘absence’ is the scientific demonstration on an ongoing basis that the specified allergen in the food is at a level that ensures safety, taking into account the most sensitive limit for a recognised and clinically relevant laboratory test method. The FDF/BRC Guidance on “Free-From” Allergen Claims (Nov 2015) provides further detail.
A helpful piece of summary guidance reiterating the common sense view on the need to risk assess each food product where a voluntary claim is made to ensure the highest safety for consumers and avoid misleading as tot he nature or characteristics of the product. This is particularly relevant due to increased demand for vegan and vegetarian products and some recent adverse press surrounding vegan products that also have precautionary statements such as 'may contain milk, eggs etc.'
It would be anticipated that the future interpretation of vegan claims from the EC and Defra should align to best assist consumer understanding and production processes.