Food Law 2019. Vegan food—what does it really mean?


The controversial judgment of the Court of Justice of the European Union in TofuTown (C-422/16) triggered a long-delayed discussion on the proper labelling of vegetarian and vegan food. This issue, which for a long time has not been a priority for the European Commission, is just becoming one. Will the time of regulatory uncertainty, to the detriment of producers, consumers and regulators, come to an end?

Soy milk disappears from the shelves

Until now, at the European level, informing consumers that food can be consumed by vegetarians and/or vegans has in principle only been subject to the general rules on the use of voluntary labels on food following the adoption of the Food Information Regulation (1169/2011).

The general rules give a relatively high degree of freedom to provide information on the product to the consumer, with two main prohibitions: the prohibition against misleading the consumer and the prohibition against attributing unique properties to products in a category where all products have a given characteristic.

However, Regulation 1308/2013 establishing a common organisation of the markets in agricultural products (known as the “Single CMO Regulation”) provides definitions of specific food products, such as milk and butter, and thus the criteria those products must meet in order to bear these regulated names.

The names of vegetarian and vegan products have traditionally been based on references to their equivalents in the animal-products world. However, in the judgment of 14 June 2017 in TofuTown, the Court of Justice presented a rigorous interpretation of the definitions in Regulation 1308/2013. Therefore, European producers had to stop using names such as “soy milk” or “coconut butter,” replacing them with descriptive names that were not obvious to consumers and even less attractive for marketing purposes, such as “soya beverage” or “coconut paste.”

Product suitable for vegetarians

Proper naming of vegan products is not the only regulatory challenge faced by manufacturers and consumers on a daily basis.

Both parties are keen on labels that would easily and quickly inform consumers that a product is suitable for vegetarians or vegans. Such labels are quite important when making purchasing decisions, especially for multi-ingredient products, sweets, ready-made meals, or even alcohol. This applies not only to purchases made by vegetarians or vegans, but also by people seeking to limit their animal-product intake or lead a more ecological lifestyle.

In this respect, in Poland the definitions contained in the Regulation of the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development of 23 December 2014 on the Labelling of Particular Types of Foodstuffs will apply.

According to that regulation, the following information may be included in the labelling of food produce:

  • A “product may be consumed by vegetarians” or is “suitable for vegetarians,” provided that the product does not contain ingredients derived from animals and that products derived from animals have not been used in its production process
  • A “product may be consumed by vegans” or is “suitable for vegans,” provided that the product does not contain any ingredients of animal origin and that products of animal origin have not been used in its production process.

It is essential to distinguish between ingredients derived from animals (e.g. meat) and ingredients of animal origin (e.g. milk, eggs, honey) and to pay attention to the production method (which may mean in practice that, for example, gelatine must be removed from the composition of the product).

What about free trade in the EU?

Polish producers are obliged to comply with the rules imposed by the regulation of 23 December 2014, but its application to producers from other EU countries is doubtful, because it could lead to restrictions in the free movement of goods.

The lack of regulation at the European level inevitably entails a risk that a product considered to be vegan or vegetarian in one EU country may not be treated as such in another, and its labelling and even the possibility of sale will be challenged by market inspectors.

Currently, the way to avoid such complications is to use the V-Label when communicating with the customer—a registered symbol of the European Vegetarian Union (EVU) licensed in many EU countries, including Poland, by local EVU organisations. Its use to characterise a product is subject to EVU rules, and if it is compliant the supervisory authorities should not question it.

Changes are coming

One of the objectives of the European Commission for 2019 is to achieve uniformity in the EU rules for labelling food as vegetarian or vegan. The new regulations are to be implemented as soon as 2020, and the transition period for the rules may be short.

The changes will concern the following questions:

  • What does it mean that a product is suitable for vegetarians and/or vegans?
  • Which ingredients are permitted and which are not in such products?
  • Does the production process matter?
  • On which type of products can the label be featured?
  • What is the future of voluntary certification and national regulatory provisions?

There is an opinion of the European Vegetarian Union on the REFIT platform, which will probably serve as a starting point for drafting the new regulations. The opinion quotes the definitions of vegetarian and vegan products used in Polish regulations. Maybe these regulations will become an inspiration for the harmonised European rules.

Joanna Krakowiak, attorney-at-law, Life Science & Regulatory practice, M&A and Corporate practice, Wardyński & Partners