The ‘vegetan’ linguistic confusion

Clarity in definitions

In the Netherlands, different claims for vegetarian and vegan products are used. Think of ‘vegan’, ‘veggie’, ‘plant-based’ or ‘vega’, for example. Especially the terms ‘vega’ or ‘veggie’ are used a lot. However, this can cause confusion among consumers; is it a vegetarian or vegan product? In fact, the conditions are also not always clear to the producer. For example, is a product still vegetarian or plant-based when there is cross-contamination with milk?
European legislation

A European legal definition and conditions for using the vegetarian or vegan claim would provide clarification for both the consumer and producer. Article 36(3) of Regulation (EU) 1169/2011 states that for various topics, including the definition of vegetarian and vegan, implementing acts have yet to be adopted. However, European legislation on the definition and conditions of the terms vegetarian and vegan is still pending.

Policy in the Netherlands

The Ministry of Health, Welfare, and Sport formulated two concept definitions for ‘vegan’ and ‘vegetarian’ in the summer of 2021. These definitions have been adopted from the international organization ProVeg (an international organization dedicated to plant-based nutrition). ‘Vegan’ concerns foods that do not contain products of animal origin. In addition, no ingredients (including additives, carriers, flavors, and enzymes) of animal origin are used at any stage of production. Neither are adjuvants or substances that are not food additives but are used in the same way and for the same purpose as technological adjuvants, whether in processed or unprocessed form.
According to this definition, cross-contamination with allergens of animal origin is permitted. However, caution is advised here. Some consumers with allergies consciously buy vegan products under the assumption that they consist of 100% plant-based ingredients and are therefore free of cross-contamination.

ProVeg’s definition of ‘vegan’ is used as the basis for the definition of ‘vegetarian’. This definition has been supplemented with ingredients that may be used or added in vegetarian products, such as:

  • Milk
  • Colostrum
  • Eggs
  • Honey
  • Beeswax
  • Propolis or Wool Grease, including lanolin derived from the wool of live sheep or components or derivatives thereof

The definitions also apply to claims that have the same meaning for the consumer. So this also shows that the claims ‘vega’ and ‘veggie’ are too unclear for the consumer. Because ‘veggie’ could mean ‘plant-based’, ‘vegetable’, or ‘vegan’. After all, in the English common parlance, ‘veggie’ is also used to refer to vegetables. But in practice, this claim is mainly found on vegetarian foods. This term can also be found on menus in the catering industry. ‘Vega’ is often used to indicate vegetarian, but add the letter ‘n’ and it would read ‘vegan’. These terms thus do not offer much insight to consumers.

Designation of substitute vegetarian and vegan products

Once it is clear whether the product is vegetarian or vegan, the producer faces another challenge: which designat can be used for the product so that the substitute function is clear and there is no confusion among consumers? And more importantly, what does the law permit?

The use of a reserved name such as ‘minced meat’ or ’tartar’ is not allowed. Not even when it is clearly indicated on the packaging that it is a vegetarian or vegan variant. It is also not possible to circumvent this prohibition by misspelling the animal species name or reserved name. However, the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport announced in December 2019 that it wanted to make the name ‘vegetarian minced meat’ allowed.

Common names such as ‘sausage’, ‘schnitzel’, or ‘burger’ are allowed, provided these names are used in combination with the claim ‘vegetarian’ or ‘vegan’. The same applies to the use of animal species names, for example, ‘vegan chicken breast’.

More information on this subject can be found in the latest version of the ‘Handbook on Food Labeling’ published by the NVWA. This includes the policy position of the Ministry of Health, Welfare, and Sport. The Ministry is currently investigating whether it is possible to make the term ‘vegetarian’ mandatory.

Naturally, KTBA is following the developments pertaining to this theme closely.


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