The vegan movement: Food industry requirements and pitfalls

The addition (whether deliberate or unintentional) of animal materials to foodstuff can lead to two major problems: the presence of undeclared animal species; and more specifically, foodstuff claimed to be suitable for vegetarians containing animal substances.

To address these problems as separate entities and mitigate the different risks involved, it is necessary to take a step back and gain perspective on how everything fits together.

Introduction

There has been an evident increase in consumer interest in vegetarian products, and it is expected that this interest will grow steadily in the foreseeable future. This growing movement presents many challenges for the food industry, especially in terms of manufacturing practices.
The unique aspect (regarding the motivation for consumption of vegan products) of veganism, compared with other dietary and food trends, indicates that it is not a temporary fad. Veganism is becoming a widely accepted lifestyle and the increased demand and expanded accessibility of vegan products has supported it to become mainstream.The current list of food safety and quality requirements already seems endless. Adding another layer of control to this complicated and demanding mix might seem like a recipe for disaster, especially in the absence of proper regulatory guidance.

But it’s time to take the bull by the horns, address the elephant in the room, and get your ducks in a row!

RECAP: Species control and the presence of undeclared species

Species control includes the identification and control of animal substances, to prevent the presence of undeclared animal species in foodstuff at every stage of the manufacturing process, from harvesting through to packaging and retailing.

There has been heightened food-industry awareness around meat species since the horsemeat scandal of 2013, in which foods advertised as containing beef were found to contain undeclared or improperly declared horse meat.

The addition of undeclared meat species to food and meat products is not an uncommon phenomenon. In South Africa in recent years, multiple incidences of species substitution and mislabelling of meat and fish products have been recorded. These occurrences not only constitute consumer fraud, violate religious faiths and raise ethical concerns, but can result in food safety risks. They may be deliberate or unintentional.

Intentional presence of undeclared species

Due to their high cost, food products such as meat are highly prone to substitution or adulteration, and such practices are often relatively simple to get away with. The flesh of many meat species differs only subtly in appearance and texture, making it difficult to identify the species used by visual inspection only. Another type of substitution of meat ingredients involves the use of cheaper ingredients from the same declared species, but from different body parts (typically offal, connective tissue or blood); or the substitutes may be non-meat ingredients (e.g. from plant or dairy sources). The fisheries and aquaculture sector is also considered particularly vulnerable to food fraud.

As a result of the rising number of incidences of food fraud, VACCP (vulnerability assessment and critical control points) and TACCP (threat assessment and critical control points) -based risk assessments of food ingredients have become GFSI requirements (FSSC 22000 and BRC Standards), in addition to HACCP (hazard analysis critical control points).

The FACTS team are well-known for our expertise in food fraud mitigation strategies, and for assisting clients with incident scanning and with training on VACCP (please see our webpage for more information).

Unintentional presence of undeclared species

The unintentional addition or substitution of species may be due to a lack of expertise, management and/or control. A significant concern is the potential for meat products to be contaminated by undeclared species during processing. Cross-contamination can arise when poorly cleaned equipment or utensils are used for processing meat from two or more different meat species.

To date, South Africa has not set any threshold levels for undeclared species. The UK’s Food Standards Authority (FSA) and Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DAFRA) recommend that a threshold level of 0.1% undeclared meat species be set for comminuted (processed) meat; this would indicate an absence of carry-over, and that good manufacturing practices were followed.

Studies have shown that a proper cleaning regime is the key to mitigating cross-contamination, and that deep cleaning can be effective in preventing the carry-over of meat species.
For more information on meat species in terms of regulatory requirements and analysis, please view our news item on Meat Species – Regulations and Analysis.

The problem at hand: Plant-based products & the addition of animal substances

A further serious concern is the potential for plant-based foodstuffs suitable for vegans and vegetarians to contain animal substances.
The vegetarian and vegan lifestyle focuses primarily on the impact of the cultivation and production of food, and aims to exclude all forms of cruelty to and exploitation of animals, as far as possible.
With the current shift towards plant-based diets, there has been notable consumer (and consequently, food industry) attentiveness towards vegan-related food products. This has brought to light potential gaps in the industry’s understanding of the requirements for this type of product, especially in terms of processing and labelling.

Products labelled and marketed as suitable for vegans and vegetarians have been found to contain traces of animal substances, originating from shared production lines and equipment during the manufacturing process or a contaminated product in the supply chain.
Similarly to meat products, vegan and vegetarian products are also subject to adulteration, and may therefore contain deliberately added undeclared animal derivatives or ingredients.

Regulatory stipulations

Directly applicable regulations:

The Regulations Relating to the Labelling and Advertising of Foodstuffs (R.146/2010, as amended) state the following:

Definitions

‘Vegetarian’ means a diet which (i) consists of ingredients of multi-cellular plant, fungal, algal and bacterial origin; (ii) may include honey, dairy foods produced without any slaughter by-products, and/or unfertilised eggs obtained from live animals; and (iii) excludes all animal flesh and products obtained from the slaughter of an animal, such as gelatine, animal fats, caviar and roe.
‘Strict vegetarian diet’ means a diet which excludes all ingredients and additives derived from animal origin, and the expression ‘vegan diet’ has the same meaning.

Claims

Vegetarian claims:
48. (1) Claims that a foodstuff is suitable for vegetarians shall specify the category of vegetarian by adding one or a combination of the following prefixes to the word ‘vegetarian’:
(a) ‘Lacto (milk)’ – means milk and milk products are included, but products in which animal rennet is used during preparation are excluded.
(b) ‘Ovo (egg)’ – means unfertilised eggs (preferably free-range) and egg products are included.
(c) ‘Honey’ – means honey is included.
(d) ‘Strict vegetarian’ or ‘vegan’ means ingredients of multicellular plant, fungal, algal and bacterial origin are included, but all ingredients and additives derived from animal origin are excluded.
(2) When a foodstuff is manufactured for the ‘strict vegetarian’ or ‘vegan’ market and a claim in respect of ‘strict vegetarian’ or ‘vegan’ is made on the label, and it is not possible to conclude from the name of the ingredient or additive that they are derived from non-vegetarian origin, any additive (refer to Annexure 1) or ingredient (refer to Guideline 9) derived from non-vegetarian origin which is added to the foodstuff shall be declared as ‘non-vegetarian origin’ or in words that specify the source in parenthesis after the name of the additive or ingredient.

Indirectly applicable regulations:

The Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act (Act No. 54 of 1972) prohibits the sale, manufacture or import for sale of any foodstuff which contains or has been treated with a substance not present in any such foodstuff when it is in a normal, pure and sound condition; or to which any substance has been added so as to increase the mass or volume of such foodstuff with the object to deceive.

The Consumer Protection Act (Act 68 of 2008) (CPA) was enacted (among other reasons) to protect consumers from hazards to their well-being and safety, and to set out consumers’ rights to safe, good-quality goods. The CPA also prohibits direct or indirect marketing to the consumer of goods if the marketing implies a false, misleading or deceptive misrepresentation concerning a material fact.

Regulatory exclusions and pitfalls

The current R.146 labelling regulations, and the guideline accompanying the regulations, do not address potential cross-contamination from non-vegetarian products to vegetarian products, animal material processing aids, management or controls of manufacturing processes, and most importantly, allergen precautionary labelling on vegetarian products.

A comprehensive regulatory framework results in a situation in which the supply chain comprehends that it must comply; and consumers can then trust the products provided.
The current lack of criteria for the use of vegetarian-related terms in food labelling and manufacturing may result in complications, including – but not limited to – the following:

Food Safety

In South Africa, four of the eight regulated common food allergens are of animal origin, namely cow’s milk, egg, fish and shellfish. A vegan/vegetarian claim, to the consumer, suggests that a product contains no animal products or by-products, and therefore creates the risk that an allergic consumer could be misled into assuming that the product is safe for consumption. There is an evident risk to allergic consumers who treat ‘vegan’ claims and allergen absence claims (e.g. ‘milk-free’) as equivalent, and this could have serious health implications. A product may also contain significant allergen contamination, and could consequently pose a major health risk to the allergenic consumer.

A study regarding dark chocolate bars available in the United States revealed that 15% of chocolates labelled ‘dairy-free’ or ‘lactose-free’ and 25% of those labelled ‘vegan’ tested positive for milk, all with concentrations >1 000ppm.

Although allergen precautionary labelling (specifically related to food allergens associated with animal products) is allowed on a product that is classified or claimed to be suitable for vegetarians, there is a risk for consumers to assume that the product does not contain any traces of animal substances.

Ethical concerns

Consumers must be protected not only from a food safety perspective, but also from an ethical standpoint. This is not a problem exclusive to vegetarians; it also affects religious classifications such as Halal, Kosher, etc. Vegetarian-based lifestyles are frequently driven by strong ethical concerns, and products suitable for these diets often come at a premium price. Ensuring that consumers are not exploited, whether financially or morally, is essential.

Supplier and consumer assurance

A food manufacturing company requires stringent brand management, and a comprehensive programme to consolidate the numerous aspects of the manufacture and sale of their products. This must include compliance with food and consumer legislation, along with identifying vulnerabilities for each product type. Ensuring brand assurance down the supply chain results in confidence in product integrity from the manufacturing side, and builds trust in the consumer market. The current lack of criteria can result in compromised brand assurance.

Testing

Testing is commonly used to validate and substantiate a labelling claim, such as an allergen-free from or nutrient content claim. The exclusion of regulatory stipulations for vegan claims has left the food industry in the dark concerning analysis requirements. This leads to many undesired outcomes; often resulting in an uneven playing field.

Seeing that the aspects of veganism are unique and multi-factorial, and that there is no specific ‘’vegan foodstuff test’’ on the market, it may seem like an impossible task to determine how to go about this matter.

FACTS can help you conduct a risk assessment, determine your testing needs and customize an approach to ensure that you get the most value for your testing. For more information on this, please contact us.

An International viewpoint

Globally, in terms of vegetarian foodstuffs very few regulatory bodies or platforms address the risks associated with cross-contamination of animal substances in a food processing facility.

The EVU is an umbrella organisation for vegan and vegetarian associations and societies throughout Europe. Their stance in terms of traces of animal substances in vegan or vegetarian food corresponds to the position of Germany (which has been applied by German food monitoring authorities since 2016, and is supported by the Federal Government and the German food industry):

“A claim that a food is vegan or vegetarian is not precluded by [the] unintended presence in the food of [animal-based] products […], if and to the extent that this is unavoidable at any stage of production, processing and distribution, despite appropriate precautions being taken in compliance with good manufacturing practices.”

The Vegan Australia Certified programme shares this perspective, and notes the following:

“For products made in facilities that also handle non-vegan products, reasonable steps must be taken to minimise cross-contamination. If there is a risk of contamination with animal products, the product packaging should include an appropriate statement, such as ‘may contain …’. No animal ingredients are to be deliberately added at any point during production.”

A South African market viewpoint

Vegan SA, the South African vegan directory, has the following requirements regarding vegan products:

‘’To qualify for a listing on our site as a vegan foodstuff, a product must be:
• Free of animal products, and use only ingredients that contain no animal products; and
• Free of animal testing, and use only ingredients that have not been tested on animals, whether at the initiative of the manufacturer or on its behalf, or by parties over whom the manufacturer has effective control.
• Products which contain or may contain any genetically modified organisms (GMOs) must be labelled as such.

Additionally, if a product is manufactured on the same production lines that are used to manufacture foodstuffs that do contain animal products, then the manufacturer must make the following commitment:

‘We confirm that our company minimises cross-contamination from animal substances used in other (non-vegan) products as far as is reasonably practicable.’”

Conclusion

Food adulteration and food authenticity failures can be driven by pressures on food production, and lack of regulatory guidance and enforcement, as well as the current climate of financial constraint. This has become even more evident with the increasing popularity of plant-based lifestyles and sustainability movements.

A change in consumer trends, science, environment or technology – and consequently, food industry movement – is usually the catalyst for regulatory alterations and adaptions. Legislation must respond to these changes to ensure that attention is paid to situations in which big food risks could occur, and ultimately secure consumer protection. The rise in consumer sustainability movements has revealed potential shortfalls in the current labelling of vegetarian foodstuffs. The legislation must address these gaps, to prevent any future problems.

Despite the current absence of regulatory guidance in terms of vegetarian foodstuffs and species control, it is still the food industry’s responsibility to ensure product authenticity and consumer protection; by employing and implementing good practices and comprehensive controls throughout the supply chain, while adhering strictly to established regulatory requirements (such as allergen control).

In addition to accommodating species- and allergen-testing requirements, FACTS can also assist with regulatory compliance and consultation regarding labelling, food safety and control.

For more information on these services, please email [email protected].

 

Other articles you may be interested in: Allergen labelling: Significant impact on product sales and market, The protein evolution.