There is currently no legal definition in the UK and Europe for the terms 'vegetarian' and 'vegan' on food labels.
While the food industry already labels foods as 'suitable for vegetarians or vegans', the criteria on which labelling is based can vary, and "consumers' confidence in this type of labelling is low," says the Food Standards Agency .
In a bid to clarify matters, the FSA has called on stakeholders to comment on its draft guidance that would bring harmony to the use of the terms 'vegetarian' and 'vegan'.
The basis for a definition of the term 'vegan' could be the exclusion of any foods that were made from, or with the use, of animals or animal products.
The term 'vegetarian' is more difficult to define. The rationale for the proposed criteria, says the FSA, is to exclude products derived from the slaughter of animals or made with the use of such products, but to permit foods that are produced by, from, or with the use of live animals, for example, eggs or honey.
The proposed guidance is not mandatory or legally binding for the industry but contains criteria for the use of the terms 'vegetarian' and 'vegan'.
"Where products fall short of this the agency would of course be unhappy.
However, whether this constitutes a legal non-compliance would be a matter for local authorities to assess, and, if legal proceedings followed, it would be up to the courts to decide,"a spokesperson from the FSA explains to FoodNavigator.com.
There is already legislation in the Food Safety Act and the Trades Description Act that prohibits misleading labelling. Claims such as 'suitable for vegetarians' or 'suitable for vegans' are subject to general controls in the Food Safety Act 1990 and sctions of th 1968 Trade Descriptions Act.
In addition, at a European level article 16 of EC Regulation 178/2002 on general food law outlaws labelling that misleads consumers.
And recentchanges to legislation governing ingredient listing (allergen ingredients) will improve consumer's ability to identify whether products, that are not clearly labelled, are or are not suitable for their diets.
Food and beverage manufacturers working in the UK can use the familiar 'V' logo from the country's Vegetarian Society on their packaging, as long as they meet the society's criteria.
Food products must, for example, be GM-free, and their ingredients must not be procured from slaughter house by-products.
The Vegetarian Society currently has over 3000 products on the shelves using its logo, spreading as far afield as the US, Belgium and Israel.
Like the Vegetarian Society, the Vegan Society also runs its own registration programme, that provides the vegan logo for food makers' products that meet the group's criteria.
There are more than 50 additives that are sometimes of animal origin, depending on how they are made. The draft vegan criteria from the FSA would require such additives to be derived from non-animal sources. However, additives originating from products of live animals, for example those from milk or eggs, would be suitable for products labelled as vegetarian.
Vitamins and colours may often be on a gelatine base. These additives would not be suitable for inclusion in products labelled vegan or vegetarian.
In addition, those additives using whey as a carrier would not be suitable for vegans. Vitamin D is often derived from sheep's wool, which is obtained either from live sheep, or as a slaughter by-product.
If from live sheep, this type of product would be suitable for vegetarians, but it would not be if it came from sheep that have been slaughtered, and would not be suitable for vegans in either case.
The draft vegan critieria exclude all products that have been made using animal products even though they may not be present in the final foodstuff, for example, wine cleared with isinglass (a product made from fish).
The draft vegetarian criteria excludes processing aids that have been made using animal products (again, whether or not they are present in the final foodstuff) except where they originate from live animals, for example, albumin would be permitted.
"The proposed criteria establish minimum standards, and do not preclude the use of stricter standards as appropriate," says the FSA.
Stakeholders have until the 5 October 2005 to comment on FSA guidance.