Social media has also had a part to play, and as consumers are becoming more knowledgeable about the workings of the food industry, their expectations around the information provided to them from the food industry has shifted as we see more emphasis placed on the importance of living sustainably and understanding what goes into our food.
This increased call for transparency about where our food comes from, coupled with the growth of the vegan food market, means it is little surprise that manufacturers making vegan claims have come under a lot of scrutiny in recent years. An example of this was seen when one retailer took the decision to provide precautionary allergen labels on their vegan products for allergens that are derived from animals, such as milk and egg. The argument has remained however, that making a vegan claim is not the same as making an allergen ‘free-from’ claim, and therefore it should not be interpreted in the same way.
This is still a relatively contentious issue that there is no clear answer on today, in part due to the fact that there is still no legal definition for the term ‘vegan’ in reference to food products. Businesses therefore need to decide for themselves what the term means. Some are electing to treat the claim in the same way as a ‘free-from’ claim, while others continue to adopt an approach allowing ‘may contain’ labelling to be used.
Given the complexities that can be associated with sourcing vegan ingredients, a thorough supplier assessment process should be in place and the food business needs to ensure they have a good understanding of how the ingredients are produced. Building strong relationships with suppliers is key, and ensuring they have a real understanding of the requirements around the materials they are supplying, and the fact that they are going into vegan products, should help in building the relationship. Anything that helps the supplier to understand why you are asking the questions that you are will benefit both sides.
For any manufacturer that is handling animal-derived materials in the facility where they are also making vegan products, there is going to be risk of the vegan claim being invalidated. Therefore, a thorough risk assessment must be carried out, to identify the areas where these errors could occur, and to implement controls to minimise the likelihood of occurrence. A lot of focus tends to be placed on removal of trace levels of material from the line to prevent cross-contamination, and often the bigger risks of cross-packing and misuse of ingredients can be overlooked, but these are far more serious in terms of impact to the product, and to the consumer.
For those businesses that can make a success of their vegan product launches, there is huge opportunity, and likely huge reward. Therefore, the importance of ensuring any claims that are being made, both on ingredients and products, can be substantiated should not be underestimated. Supplier assurance and risk assessment have a key role to play in supporting the integrity of any vegan claims a manufacturer chooses to make on their products.