Consultation on ‘vegetarian’ ‘vegan’ and the issue of ‘may contain...’ on food labels

The 2006 'Guidance on the use of the terms ‘vegetarian’ and ‘vegan’ in food labelling' is being rewritten to clarify definitions and in light of EU Regulation 1169/2011 on the provision of food information to consumers. In the absence of legal definitions, this guidance is relied on for use of the terms ‘vegetarian’ and ‘vegan’ to avoid being misleading to consumers.

The revised guidance was published online on 27th March 2015 and is available for public comment until 8th May 2015 to labelling@defra.gsi.gov.uk.

One of the key aspects concerning where these claims may be made concerns the possibility of cross contamination.  A main question that is addressed in the consultation is whether foods carrying precautionary allergen statements (ie ‘may contain’) should be allowed to be presented as ‘vegetarian’ or ‘vegan’ where the allergen is not considered to be suitable for vegetarian or vegan diets.

There are currently no thresholds to inform the use of precautionary allergen labelling. The use of ‘may contain’ labelling is voluntary, although businesses are advised to consider this when a real risk to the allergic consumer has been identified following a risk assessment.

The 2006 guidance advises that: ‘Manufacturers, retailers and caterers should be able to demonstrate that foods presented as ‘vegetarian’ or ‘vegan’ have not been contaminated with non-vegetarian or non-vegan foods during storage, preparation, cooking or display.’

The use of precautionary allergens statements (such as ‘may contain’ statements) has therefore caused confusion over whether some products can be regarded as vegetarian or vegan.

It would be helpful for industry as a whole if, in addition to tightening up guidance on this aspect, that general precautionary thresholds on the inadvertent presence of allergens were proposed.

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