Issues with the veganic label


Issues with the veganic label

Vegan Society of Canada News
Published July 15th 2022
Updated July 22nd 2022

Vegan certification, with its numerous serious issues like the animal testing loophole, the exploitation of non-human and human animals in part via slavery and slavery-like conditions, and the fallacy that plants are inherently better are among issues we consider to be akin to the wild west. By definition, anything that relies on what veganism is, like “veganic” farming certification, must also be similarly labelled.

It should be easy to convince ourselves of this. Conceptually veganic farming was meant to group together something that would have the qualities of both being vegan and organic. However, on a global scale what is organic is also the wild west. Organic certification is something that—for various reasons, including money—never achieved international consensus. It is a patchwork of various standards, and in many countries, including Canada, those standards are decided exclusively by people who have connections to the agricultural industry, packaged food, or a similar sector.

Add to this the fact that in a group, including many vegan organizations globally like the Vegan World Alliance (VWA), we are unable to come to a consensus about what veganism is and is not, and in turn what vegan certification must and must not include, making it impossible to come to a consensus about what veganic farming should and should not be. For example, those who certify as vegan the exploitation of animals via slavery and slavery-like conditions, will of course certify veganic a farm that operates under slavery-like conditions.

We have had some farms claiming to do veganic farming contact us about veganic certification but did not even comply with our regular vegan standards. In one case, a farm was using consumables that were not vegan certifiable, which is not allowed in our vegan certification. We define consumables as something that is meant to be replaced regularly, and it is a subjective criterion. For example, if juice is filtered in a machine including a replaceable filter made in part from animals or animal by-products, this is not allowed. The filter is considered a consumable and must comply with our vegan standard. Similarly, if in the process of growing and harvesting carrots one were to mandate the use of a cow-leather bag to collect them, and those bags are replaced regularly, they would also be considered a consumable and this would not comply with our vegan standard. However, farms that claim to be veganic seem to have a few things in common, mainly that they do not use pesticides or fertilizers coming from animals.

We understand the desire of for-profit businesses to circumvent existing vegan and organic certification by labelling their products and/or farms as veganic. It is unlikely at this time that we would take legal actions on behalf of animals against those who use the vegan designation in conflict with our vision, for example by using the animal testing loophole or producing goods under slavery or slavery-like conditions. The main reason would not be because it is not unethical or should not be prosecuted but because it would be an inefficient use of our limited resources.

Of all the issues with organic certification, the lack of regulations in many countries is not one of them. The organic industry has changed a lot since its inception. It is now a multi-billion dollar industry dominated by very large corporations and non-governmental organizations staffed, often exclusively, with people connected to the agricultural or packaged-food industry. Those large and well-funded entities would likely have no issues taking legal actions against a business that would try to imply that their products are organic without being certified by an authorized regulating body in the country they are operating and/or doing business in.

Using any terms including but not limited to “veganic”, “vegabio” and “bioveg” to imply that a product is both vegan and organic is risking various litigation. Whether it’s from regulators in the form of unfair advantages, misleading practices, unfair competition, consumer protection, or from competitors directly. It is a legal risk to combine in one word the concepts of veganism, with those already being heavily legislated, for example, organic or kosher.

In addition, each country has different rules and despite no action taken by the European Union thus far, it doesn’t mean that the US or Canada would not take action. It is clear that the likelihood of litigation will grow as the use of these practices, and therefore the money involved, grows. It seems little more than profit maximization for businesses since we assume businesses that would like to indicate to customers they are both vegan and kosher would have to create the “vegasher” label, or vegan halal creating a “vegal” label, and so on and so forth. Besides being inefficient and contributing to label fatigue, the legal risk of combining aspects of various standards should not be ignored, and we advise against it. Our position on this issue and our solution are fairly simple and consistent with previous advice to businesses.

Labels on their own have no inherent ability to bring about our vision. Whether someone buys a product that is labelled “vegan” or exactly the same product under a “plant-based” label instead, this does not in itself have any effect on the speed at which our vision will become a reality. If anything, one can make a case that the wild west in vegan certification, and in labelling practices in general, is making it more difficult for consumers who want to make a change to support products and organizations that align with their values; as a result, this hinders the achievement of our vision.

We continue to encourage businesses not to self-certify, and if they do not want to use an existing certification mechanism, to simply give as much information to consumers as possible. If the only thing that your veganic farm is doing differently than another organic farm is not using fertilizers from animals or pesticides, label your products with various “free-from” labels like “animal-free fertilizers” and “no pesticides”. This will avoid the potential scenario where businesses will be certified as veganic while they actually did not change anything in their practices but their label.

Whereas some fruits and vegetables rely heavily on pesticides or fertilizers, like strawberries, others can easily do without, like asparagus or various tree-based crops. Other than potentially increasing profit for the businesses, just adding a new label with no clear meaning, like veganic, would do little for the consumer or our vision.

We have a lot of issues with current organic certification that are beyond the scope of this article, but we understand the desire to bring about changes. However, circumventing regulations and implying that your product is organic when it isn’t could potentially lead to litigation and is not a solution to this problem. Businesses need to either obtain organic certification legitimately, or give consumers as much information as possible and label their product as, for example, free from synthetic vitamins. Alternatively, they can simply use various equivalent naming schemes to organic like “No pesticides”, “GMO-free”.

We want to take a small detour to address concerns by some of our colleagues with regards to certification standards, which is that if we adopted the draft standard of the VWA, a vast majority of products sold would not be vegan certifiable and with the funds we make from certification we can then further promote veganism.

Our vision is not to achieve 100% market penetration of the vegan label, to be the most popular, or to organize a festival with world record-breaking support from corporate sponsors; it is to end animal exploitation. It’s important to convince ourselves that no amount of money would bring about our vision for the long term. Adopting veganism requires a change in thinking, behaviour, attitude, and action. There is no amount of money we can get that would allow us to magically achieve this.

One might claim that assuming our actions are meant to bring about this change, wouldn’t more money allow us to do this faster? The quick answer is no, but this will require lengthy reasoning. We need to establish that it is nearly impossible to know the long-term impact of our actions. Small actions can have consequential repercussions, and large actions can have small results. We are all familiar with the saying that a butterfly flapping its wings in one corner of the world can affect others at the other end of the planet. Since knowing the exact impact of our actions is for all intents and purposes impossible, the only thing we can do is ensure we have the right motivation, for example, achieving our vision and taking actions that are scientifically very likely to bring about a result that is in accordance with our motivation.

Even if assuming that our wish to acquire this money is purely to speed up the achievement of our vision, there is still the issue of making sure our action is likely to bring about our vision. The problem is that our vision, in short, aims to end the exploitation of all animals, and that veganism's sole purpose is to bring about this vision. We must ensure that our actions are likely to bring about this vision.

It becomes untenable to make such claims when we take money to certify various products or services that exploit animals, like those that take advantage of the animal testing loopholes or those that exploit human animals, without any clear paths toward achieving our vision in a timely manner. This is in part because we use the precautionary principle in veganism, and for our definition, we’re inspired by the EU communication on the precautionary principle, which basically means we have a responsibility to act if we find reasonable grounds that animal exploitation is taking place.

If there is a lack of consensus on whether reasonable grounds exist under the precautionary principle, the burden of proof is on those claiming that there are no reasonable grounds. In this case, it would be up to those who believe that there are no reasonable grounds to believe that taking money by certifying as “vegan” the exploitation of animals as a way to end it is more expedient in reaching our vision. We have yet to hear any such arguments, and it is very likely we never will. As a result, the precautionary principle of veganism requires that we do not do this.

Our arguments are clear and we believe there is convincing evidence that this is unwise. Just like there are reasonable grounds to believe that more violence is not an efficient means to end violence, so too there are reasonable grounds to believe it’s inefficient to encourage the exploitation of animals by certifying vegan egregious exploitation, such as products made in slavery-like conditions or those using the animal testing loophole.

This is especially true in the case of static or pseudo-static certification standards, i.e. standards whose criteria never change or change very slowly, and will never result in the achievement of our vision in a timely manner. We need to emphasize the importance of a time component in a vision in general, otherwise, anyone can claim they are working to achieve any vision. We strive to ensure our actions are consistent with achieving our vision in a few decades. Taking money that is the proceeds of the exploitation of animals to end the exploitation of animals should be, at the very least, a huge red flag.

This is why our certification has been dynamic from the beginning and is meant to bring about our vision in a timely manner. However, we did recognize the need to differentiate businesses that are bringing our vision to a reality not in 30 years from now but today.

Strangely the solution we have adopted in our certification, which is part of the VWA draft standard, was initially proposed by another member of the VWA that failed to put it into practice themselves. The solution was to have various sub-components of the certification culminating in the vegan certification. In this way, it still allows for organizations to engage with businesses, for businesses to differentiate themselves, and provides consumers with as much information as possible while not falling into the dangerous trap of labelling things vegan that must not be.

There are five sub-components of the vegan certification and our vision certification. They are “100% plant ingredients” or “Animal-free ingredients”, “No animal testing”, “No human animal exploitation” and “Animal-free packaging”. Those five sub-components are a requirement for our vegan certification; there is no extra cost but it gives the possibility for businesses to tell consumers as much as possible without labelling everything vegan.

For example, some businesses we have certified as “Animal-free” were unable to meet our condition for our “No aminal testing” component, due in part to the animal testing loophole. Therefore, you might see our logo on such products but with the label “Animal-Free Certified” instead of “Vegan Certified”. Whenever businesses make various changes we have identified, they can obtain certification for an extra sub-component at no extra cost and eventually the vegan certification.

In addition, when you only see our “Animal-Free Certified” on a product, since there is no extra cost, it means that for various reasons they were unable to meet the requirements of our other sub-components and as a result our vegan certification. However, it is important to note that our vegan certification is not simply the sum of all 5 sub-components. For example, a product that is certified as vegan by us is not allowed to use animal-based cleaning agents as part of the manufacturing process, but, for various reasons, we do not have an “Animal-free cleaning agents” certification sub-component, so that is part of the vegan certification as a whole.

The last aspect of our certification is the “Vision Certified” designation that we use in part for farms that would have used the label “veganic”. We don’t want to create different labels for different sectors and certification combinations, and in reality, a veganic farm is just another business producing goods with various inputs. In this case, it’s simply a business producing fruits and vegetables that may want to show they do more than other businesses whose products are already labelled vegan.

However, farms weren’t alone in wanting to showcase their extra efforts in the achievement of our vision. This is why we advise businesses to use existing certification mechanisms, like organic or kosher, and those who want to showcase their efforts to make our vision a reality today can apply for our “Vision” certification. A product, service, or business that qualifies for our “Vision” certification will be able to have both a “Vegan Certified” and “Vision Certified” label. Our “Vision Certified” label means that there is absolutely zero animal exploitation, and we can tell you that no business has qualified for it yet.

We have one of the most stringent vegan certifications in the world and there are various reasons for that. One of them is, as a charitable organization, the sole purpose of certification is to achieve our vision and not to increase profit. Additionally, we don’t want to have the maximum number of products labelled vegan on the shelf if those products are produced in a way that is discordant with the achievement of our vision in a timely manner.

Our commitment to our vision is unwavering. What is ethically wrong with animal exploitation is not where it occurs in the supply chain, or whether it occurs to an animal that looks like a cow, but that it occurs at all. Always make sure you support organizations and certifications that align with your beliefs.

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