Research has revealed that over a third of vegan-labeled foods contained traces of animal products, posing potential health risks for those with severe allergies. The study by Hampshire and Kent Scientific Services discovered that 39% of 61 vegan-marked products contained egg or dairy. Inspectors found 90% of the products unsatisfactory due to traces of dairy or labeling inaccuracies. Amid increasing vegan and plant-based dietary trends, there are rising concerns over unclear definitions and potential exploitation by unethical businesses. Food allergy sufferers may face severe health risks with no legal definition or threshold requirement for vegan food in the UK or EU. The death of Celia Marsha in 2017 and comments made by coroner Maria Voisin in her subsequent report shone a spotlight on the devastating consequences of undeclared allergens (see Steven Morris, Family of woman who had fatal reaction to ‘vegan’ wrap call for better testing, The Guardian, September 22, 2022).
In July 2023, the Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CTSI), which is a UK not-for-profit organization established in 1881 that aims at protecting consumers and safeguarding honest businesses, published the report “Vegan and Plant-based Food” (see below to access the report). In the report, the CTSI warned 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. The CTSI has urged for legal clarity and accountability in vegan and plant-based food labeling. The CTSI found in a survey that 76% of 2000 respondents incorrectly believe that food products labeled as vegan do not contain any animal products, even in very small amounts.
This scandal underpins the broader issue of widespread consumer fraud and misrepresentation. These labeling inaccuracies, which might be due to unclear definitions, poor regulation, or unscrupulous practices, pose serious health risks for people with allergies and are a betrayal of trust for customers. Transparency and accuracy in food labeling are vital not only for informed consumer choice but also for ensuring public safety. The prevalence of such discrepancies calls for stricter legal guidelines and accountability.
Governments must play a critical role in ensuring transparency and accuracy in food labeling. They should resist any form of corporate lobbying aimed at limiting the information included on labels, which could potentially obscure the true content of products (see, for instance, how the food industry opposed the FDA’s decision to require an “added sugars” declaration and daily reference value on the nutrition facts label in the United States: Roberto A. Ferdman, Why the sugar industry hates the FDA’s new Nutrition Facts label, The Washington Post, May 20, 2016). It is imperative that regulatory authorities implement stringent rules that ensure comprehensive and transparent access to information on food products. This step would enhance consumer trust, ensure their right to make informed choices, and safeguard public health.
Sarah Marsh, One in three UK vegan products found to contain milk or egg, The Guardian, July 7, 2023.
Download the Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CTSI) of July 7, 2023, “Vegan and Plant-based Food”: