Defining ‘vegan’ and ‘vegetarian’ in Europe

By Katia Merten-Lentz, partner at Keller and Heckman, and Oliver Hartmanm, legal consultant at Keller and Heckman

- Last updated on GMT

Defining ‘vegan’ and ‘vegetarian’ in Europe

Related tags: Food products, European union

Pressure is rising for the development of a legal definition of ‘vegan’ and ‘vegetarian’ food in Europe but national governments are moving ahead of the European Commission in this regard.

Based on the growing demand for vegetarian and vegan food products, the use of vegetarian or vegan symbols and labels on food by business operators is on the rise. Yet, it is often unclear in concrete terms what is meant by ‘vegan’ or ‘vegetarian’ terminology used on food labelling.

This relates to the fact that the terms ‘vegan’ and ‘vegetarian’ have not been legally defined by EU food law so far. However, pursuant to the EU Labeling Regulation 1169/2011, the Commission is obliged to adopt an implementing act on voluntary labeling information pertaining to the suitability of a food for vegetarians or vegans. The requirement to adopt such an implementing act is not subject to a specified deadline.

Calls for a binding definition

Of interest, a submission by the European Vegetarian Union (EVU) on the need to define the terms ‘vegan’ and ‘vegetarian’ was made to the REFIT platform that has been established by the Commission to provide an opportunity for stakeholders to submit suggestions how to make EU laws more effective. In June 2017, the government group and the stakeholder group of the platform expressed their support for the submission and urged the Commission to fulfill rapidly its obligation to adopt an implementing act on the criteria related to the suitability of a food for vegetarians or vegans.

Also at a national level, authorities are progressively supporting the establishment of clear definitions for the terms ‘vegan’ and ‘vegetarian’. In Germany, consumer protection ministers of the federal states agreed on uniform definitions for ‘vegan’ and ‘vegetarian’ already in 2016. These definitions will be used as a reference by German enforcement authorities when controlling food products labelled as ‘vegan’ or ‘vegetarian’. In addition, work is currently undertaken to include horizontal guidelines for vegan and vegetarian food products in the German food code that serves as the orientation for business operators.

'Not a priority' for EC

Despite the pressure from the REFIT platform and developments at a national level with regard to vegan and vegetarian definitions, as in Germany, the Commission has recently made clear that the drafting of an implementing act regarding the suitability of a food for vegetarians or vegans is not a priority. In response to an MEP written question, the Health and Food Safety Commissioner Andriukaitis made clear that the Commission cannot commit at this time to a specific date or content of the implementing act.

Accordingly, legal clarification concerning the use of ‘vegan’ or ‘vegetarian’ terms on food products at EU level is not likely to occur in the near future.

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