Vegan with Traces of Animal-Derived Ingredients? Improving the Vegan Society’s Labelling

Abstract

The Vegan Society (VS) is one of the most influential vegan organisations worldwide. In 1990 VS created a trademark, The Vegan Trademark, which certifies products as being suitable for vegans. While this, without doubt, has been beneficial in many ways, a change in their present labelling practice is in order. This, I argue, is due to inobservance of a simple coherence requirement to treat morally similar cases alike: the fundamental moral reason that is precluding some products from vegan certification is not precluding other products from such certification. I start by presenting the standard definition of veganism and briefly describing the two relevant cases. I then go on to argue that the treatment of such cases involves incoherence of the labelling practice. In addition, I propose a way of removing the incoherence that fits better with veganism’s future-orientedness. I finally consider and respond to some objections.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    See e.g. Jackson (2000), Bonotti (2014, 2016) and Nielsen (2016).

  2. 2.

    A recent article that also addresses the ethics of vegan labelling is Gerke and Janssen (2017). Gerke and Janssen (2017)’s study in the German context found that 56% of foods displaying a vegan label only used producer labels, instead of third-party labels (which are more trusted by consumers), and that their standards were unclear or not available online. One conclusion was that vegan labelling standards should be improved. Moreover, as Mainente et al. (2017, 281) note, European Union regulations on food labelling are focused on health risks and do not consider those who abstain from animal products for moral reasons. A shared worry is the lack of mandatory, uniform and clear regulations on vegan labelling. These regulations, however, will need to be informed by adequate standards for vegan labelling.

  3. 3.

    I thank an anonymous reviewer for another journal for urging me to clarify this.

  4. 4.

    VS is a model case, being one of the most influential vegan organisations certifying vegan products. What I will say applies mutatis mutandis to other organisations and producers if they accept VS’s definition of veganism and their respective labelling practices also display the incoherence described in section “An Incoherence in VS’s Labelling Practice”.

  5. 5.

    Worldwide, mandatory allergen labels warn consumers about foods that contain main allergens, like milk, as an ingredient. In contrast, the likely, unintentional presence of main allergens in foods is not widely regulated. Despite this, the European Union (2011, article 36) regulates the provision of voluntary information for such cases. “It shall not mislead the consumer” and “it shall, where appropriate, be based on the relevant scientific data”. This means that a product with a ‘may contain’ warning most likely contains the referred allergen in an amount that poses a risk to the relevant consumers. See https://www.fda.gov/food/food-allergies/survey-milk-dark-chocolate-products (Retrieved 12 January 2021) for some supporting evidence regarding chocolates in the USA. Note also that milk is a salient example, but certified vegan products may also contain eggs, shellfish, molluscs, etc.

  6. 6.

    On one reading of the standards, this is not a case of conflict with veganism, since the tests were not made “at the initiative of the company (…) or on its behalf, or by parties over whom the company has effective control”. Yet, this reading assumes that the standards are explicit about everything a company cannot do to obtain certification. On my reading, the standards are but a brief guide and thus only mention the most noteworthy necessary conditions. If this were not a case of conflict with veganism, companies that now test some ingredients on animals and, therefore, fail the standards, would have a simple recipe to obtain certification: buying ingredients from a company that does the tests anyway. But then virtually every product with animal-tested ingredients could be certified, which would defeat the very purpose of avoiding animal exploitation by means of vegan certification.

  7. 7.

    Much has been written about making a difference in this context. See e.g. Glover and Scott-Taggart 1975, Singer 1980 and, more recently, Kagan 2011 and Budolfson 2018. I take it that veganism implies that one can make a difference.

  8. 8.

    It should be mentioned that although VS is a clear authority on the subject – they even invented the word! –, other views of veganism are possible. For instance, a view in which the anti-commodification of animals is the focus perhaps would imply that vegans should not use animals, including meat, even if such use does not lead to more animal exploitation (see Clipsham and Fulfer 2016, 290). Even so, this does not affect my argument. Firstly and foremost, because my argument pertains VS’s view of veganism. Secondly, since no vegan labelling practice is both influential and based on the anti-commodification approach, even if I were to consider such approach here, my conclusion would not have a practical outcome significantly different than the one it now has. I thank an anonymous reviewer for pressing me to clarify this.

  9. 9.

    I am not claiming that companies that test on animals, or those who fuel them, will always use their profit to do the same sort of thing they did in the past. The description of the case is not a general description of non-vegan businesses. It is only a reasonable explanation for vegan boycotting and a sufficient condition for the conflict between animal testing and veganism.

  10. 10.

    This does not imply consequentialism. The assumption is only that consequences regarding animal welfare are a central factor for veganism. Perhaps some actions are required, from the vegan point of view, regardless of their consequences, but excluding animal exploitation through boycotting is not one of them. Whether or not vegans think that animals have rights and/or deserve to be treated with justice, their principal effort is to make a difference to how much animal pain and deaths there are. (This point is now clearer thanks to a question from an anonymous reviewer for another journal).

  11. 11.

    Given that there are no uniform, clear regulations about the unintentional presence of main allergens in foods, the wording of precautionary allergen labelling varies significantly. While some labels state ‘may contain…’, others state ‘produced in a facility that also handles…’. This poses a further problem, since such difference can easily be used by “vegan” companies to conceal the fact that they resort to co-manufacturing alongside non-vegan companies.

  12. 12.

    I am inclined to think that in such contexts veganism implies abstaining from chocolate and, therefore, that certification would still be inappropriate. Fortunately, my main point does not require defending a claim that, I suspect, many see as a clear reductio.

  13. 13.

    From online research I easily found eight chocolate producers with dedicated vegan facilities in the UK alone: Plamil Foods, Mood Foods, Moo Free, Conscious Chocolate, The Raw Chocolate Company, Solkiki, Prodigy Snacks and Essy and Bella Chocolate. Chocolates from some of these producers are stocked by major supermarkets and health store chains and also have distributors across Europe. All can be purchased online.

  14. 14.

    I am not suggesting that Plamil, or other organisations supporting stricter standards, would agree with my reasoning. As far as I know, the grounds for their standards may be the purity view I criticised (see Sect. “Animal Testing”).

  15. 15.

    As mentioned above, I do not think that VS’s view of veganism, despite its future-orientedness, implies consequentialism. However, vegan consequentialists can account for this focus on certain or foreseeable consequences only with some form of subjective consequentialism.

  16. 16.

    I thank David Yates and an anonymous reviewer for another journal for raising this objection. In some ways it resembles Warfield’s phone bill objection (see Warfield 2016, 156), although the challenge under appreciation is prima facie more treatable. The reason is that Warfield’s objection aims at the obligation to avoid financial support to animal exploitation in general, but veganism is here taken as the weaker obligation to avoid such support as far as practicable.

  17. 17.

    The vegan community is known for sharing lists of unfamiliar animal-derived ingredients and of companies that test on animals and those that do not (see e.g. https://www.peta.org/living/food/animal-ingredients-list/ and https://crueltyfree.peta.org). On the other hand, the closest thing one can easily find about vegan transportation services is information about transportation of passengers that serve vegan meals.

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Acknowledgements

A very rough version of this work was presented at the IX Braga Meetings on Ethics and Political Philosophy; I thank the audience for their questions, in particular Cátia Faria and Eze Paez. I also thank the audience at the LanCog Seminar, where a more recent version was presented; I thank especially David Yates, Elia Zardini and Ricardo Santos for their helpful comments and questions. I am thankful to an anonymous reviewer for JAGE, whose comments, suggestions and objections led to a much better version of the article. Lastly, my greatest debt is to Bruno Jacinto; he discussed these matters with me at many occasions, read the first proper draft and offered me extensive, invaluable comments and encouragement.

Funding

Part of the research for this article was done while I was supported by the doctoral fellowship SFRH/BD/107907/2015 by Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia.

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Correspondence to Ricardo Miguel.

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Miguel, R. Vegan with Traces of Animal-Derived Ingredients? Improving the Vegan Society’s Labelling. J Agric Environ Ethics 34, 5 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10806-021-09842-7

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Keywords

  • Allergens
  • Animal ethics
  • Animal testing
  • Cross-contamination
  • Food ethics
  • Veganism