International veggie media currently report about the „German government“ enacting a binding definition of vegetarian and vegan products. They interpret this as confirmation of Germany’s pioneering role in the promotion of vegan food. But this could be too good to be true…
And unfortunately, it is. The news refers to definitions of “vegetarian” and “vegan” that were recently approved by the Council of the Consumer Protection Ministers. Those politicians are responsible for their respective local federal states. They are not part of the Federal Government of Germany. Those ministers made their version of a definition and asked the German federal government to try and implement it at an European level.
In Brussels, however, such definitions are being debated since at least 2014. Which definition will actually become formal law, and when, can still not be predicted.
Still, the decision has a limited significance: In Germany, the federal states are responsible for local food monitoring. Local staff in cities and towns continually takes samples from shops and examines the food and its packaging. However, the decisions of these local authorities are not binding. When a case goes to court, it seems unclear what definition of „vegan“ would be used.
The minister’s definitions: Pragmatic, with a loophole
The original text of the definitions can be found below They appear appropriate for pragmatic vegans: ingredients, additives and all other conceivable aids may not be of animal origin, and this has to be ensured at all stages of production and processing. However, the “unintentional” inclusion of animal products is acceptable if it happens „despite appropriate precautions in compliance with Good Manufacturing Practice” and it if is “technically unavoidable.“ A „good manufacturing practice“ will also take economic aspects into account and therefore not strive for absolute purity in all aspects of every ingredient.
Such regulations are normal and necessary. But when not regulated in detail, such exemptions could allow a manufacturer to find a loophole for including animal products even when they could be prevented. It is also unclear what exactly a manufacturer has to do to ensure that “all stages of processing” are free of animal products – for example, if ingredients are used that are already processed at an earlier point of the supply chain.
In summary, even if those definitions would be used, it would still mean that you basically need to trust the manufacturer.
By the way: The term „vegan“ was invented in 1944 by Donald Watson – 72 years ahead of the federal ministers.
(1) A food is vegan if it is not an animal product and if the following substances are not used and not added in any step of production or processing, if they are from animal origin:
– ingredients (including additives, carrier materials, flavourings, enzymes) or
– processing agents or
– items what are not additives, but that are used in the same way and with the same purpose as processing agents,
(2) [vegetarian products – not relevant] (3) A product can be labelled vegan or vegetarian even if it contains unintentional parts from animal origins and therefore does not conform to paragraphs 1 and 2, if those parts from animal origin cannot be prevented under Good Manufacturing Practise in all of the steps of production and processing.
4) Paragraphs 1 to 3 also apply if a food item carries information that the consumer considers to be equal to the words “vegan” or “vegetarian”.