Law Professor: We Should Petition the FDA to Certify Vegetarian Foods

Carrie Griffin Basas, ‘V’ is for Vegetarian: FDA-Mandated Vegetarian Food Labeling

I became a vegetarian over a quarter-century ago, when the vegetarian market was small/fringe-y. Back then, it was hard to get a supply of high-quality and trustworthy vegetarian food, either in the grocery stores or when I traveled.

Things have changed so much for the better in the intervening years. The vegetarian market has grown a lot, which has spurred competition and innovation, with the result being that vegetarians are now blessed with a panoply of high-quality vegetarian offerings. Despite this, I remain baffled that the market has not successfully self-organized a vegetarian certification. The vegetarian market is large enough to drive significant business from a successful certification, and there are so many products with obscure or hidden ingredients that vegetarians would like to know about.

Carrie Griffin Basas, a self-described “herbivore” and VAP at UNC, argues that this market failure should be cured by an FDA certification process. Normally, involving the FDA automatically goes into the bottom 10% of my desired outcomes (I don’t know what options are in the top 90%, but I know FDA involvement never is). However, given the long-standing failure of the market to produce a reliable vegetarian certification, perhaps government involvement is necessary. She concludes:

Currently, vegetarians do not have the full information about ingredients that they need to make informed dietary choices. A federally mandated system of vegetarian food labeling hinges on having a consistent definition of “vegetarian” and addressing concerns about crosscontact that might arise in the manufacturing process. Consumers need to be involved in generating a compelling petition for these changes at the FDA. Unsuspectingly, vegetarians may be consuming food that contains animal ingredients because the current regulatory scheme falls short of full disclosure of ingredient sources. Manufacturers can play pivotal roles in ensuring that the FDA takes a consumer-driven petition seriously. Short of a successful petition, consumers should form coalitions with manufacturers to strengthen existing, voluntary certification systems. A cohesive, functioning model of labeling and certification can spur progress at the federal level, as well as in the food industry.

I have reached out to Prof. Basas about pursuing an FDA petition. If you would be interested in the effort, please let me know.

The abstract:

More than eight million adults in the United States are vegetarians and around forty percent of all people in the United States seek vegetarian food options while dining. Vegetarianism comes in a multitude of flavors, but a “pure vegetarian” or a vegan does not consume any products that come from animals, including milk, eggs, and gelatin. People practicing a vegetarian lifestyle may have turned to these dietary restrictions for ethical, religious, environmental, health, or other reasons. Currently, the FDA does not require the labeling of vegetarian foods as such. Because of the FDA’s permissive attitude toward food labeling generalities, such as “natural” or “artificial” flavoring and colorings, many vegetarians find it difficult to identify if their foods are indeed compatible with their lifestyles and ethical choices. Without this information, people interested in making food choices that respect the lives of animals may unintentionally cause harm to the creatures that they seek to protect. While voluntary, community-driven labeling programs exist, they reach only a small fraction of food products.

This article will explore the case for a standardized vegetarian packaged food labeling and certification system designed and implemented by the FDA. Part I presents the current problems with the FDA’s laissez faire approach to vegetarian food certification. Part II of the article addresses the law giving the FDA the authority and duty to ensure that vegetarian consumers are fully informed of food ingredients. Part III then presents three case studies – kosher certification, bioengineered foods, and food allergens – that could assist the FDA in designing a consumer-friendly, animal-conscious approach to vegetarian packaged foods. In Part IV, I outline a proposal to assist the FDA in addressing this critical monitoring and labeling issue.

Another reason to read the article: the footnotes provide a useful citation collection of academic research on vegetarianism.