The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has launched a campaign to explain the difference between free-from and vegan labeling.

Vegan labels are used to support a dietary choice and do not intentionally contain products of animal origin. However, vegan food could still be prepared alongside eggs, milk, fish, crustaceans, or mollusks.  

To use a free-from label, businesses must follow processes to manage the risk of cross-contamination so they do not contain any of the ingredients they claim to be free-from.  

An FSA-commissioned survey found many people didn’t know that vegan products might not be suitable for those with food hypersensitivities to allergens of animal origin and that they need to check for precautionary allergen labeling, such as “may contain” on vegan products. 

Cross-contamination risk
Emily Miles, FSA CEO, said findings from the survey were concerning,

“Unfortunately, the reality of food production means there is still a risk of cross-contamination with animal-based allergens in vegan and plant-based products if produced in the same factory as animal-based products,” she said.  

The survey was conducted online in December 2023 with 4,085 adults, aged 16 to 75, living in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. A total of 821 respondents reported either experiencing reactions to allergens of animal origin and/or regularly shopping for someone who does.

It found there was misplaced confidence that the term vegan means a product is safe for those with food hypersensitivities to allergens of animal origin.

Only 53 percent of those with food hypersensitivity and 50 percent of those who shop for someone with one were aware that vegan products might not be suitable for them due to a risk of cross-contamination.

62 percent of all respondents were confident that vegan food was safe for those with food hypersensitivities to allergens of animal origin.

Free-from indicates safety
The survey found widespread misunderstanding about what different labels, such as free-from, vegan, or plant-based, mean for the safety of those with food hypersensitivities.

Some people are using vegan labeling as a proxy for allergen labeling. Only 55 percent of those who used vegan labeling were at least sometimes aware that vegan products may not be suitable for those with food hypersensitivities to allergens of animal origins due to cross-contamination risks.

The three main UK allergen charities — Allergy UK, Anaphylaxis UK, and the Natasha Allergy Research Foundation — said raising awareness of the issue will help people with allergies choose safe food.

“This worrying research shows that many people with allergies to products of animal origin are buying vegan and plant-based food and assuming it is safe to eat, without taking further precautions to check the label.”  

Claire Ogley, head of campaigns, policy, and research at the Vegan Society, said: “Our Vegan Trademark shows products are vegan to our rigorous standards as far as is practical and possible, and efforts have been made to avoid cross-contamination. However, people must understand that a vegan label does not necessarily mean the product is allergen-free, and people with allergies should always check the allergen labeling on products before consuming them.”

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