By Jeanne Yacoubou, MS

The VRG received a question from an online reader who wondered if there are any laws that restaurants must follow when labeling their menu offerings as vegan.

There is not a federal legal definition of “vegan” in the U.S. restaurants must use. This means that companies and restaurants might feel free to use the term as they wish.

There are 3rd party certifying agencies, which certify products or foods. A company need not use them to call an item vegan, and the agencies can have different standards.

Posted Calories at Restaurants Law
The FDA enforces (since 2017) a calorie & nutrition labeling rule in certain chain restaurants and similar eateries. Read more about it here:
This rule may not help you as a consumer looking for vegan options.

FALCPA and Vegans
More helpful is the food allergen rule FALCPA established in 2004. Food allergen rule FALCPA established in 2004

Foods containing eggs & dairy will need to be listed on food packages. Unfortunately, this rule doesn’t apply to restaurants (although some may voluntarily provide and/or display this information). Here are some pertinent FAQs from the above link:

Q: What about food prepared in restaurants? How will I know that the food I ordered does not contain an ingredient to which I am allergic?
A: FALCPA only applies to packaged FDA-regulated foods. However, FDA advises consumers who are allergic to particular foods to ask questions about ingredients and preparation when eating at restaurants or any place outside the consumer’s home.

Q: How will FALCPA apply to foods purchased at bakeries, food kiosks at the mall, and carry out restaurants?
A: FALCPA’s labeling requirements extend to retail and food-service establishments that package, label, and offer products for human consumption. However, FALCPA’s labeling requirements do not apply to foods that are placed in a wrapper or container in response to a consumer’s order – such as the paper or box used to provide a sandwich ordered by a consumer.

EU and Vegan Labeling
In 2019 the EU is supposed to begin looking into legally defining “vegan” and “vegetarian.”
This means that there may be laws that companies and possibly restaurants must follow unless the EU designates it as voluntary guidance.

Be sure to check back to our blog for updates on this issue.

Though vegan may not be specifically defined in the U.S. by law, there are general consumer laws, which may apply.

For example, In the case of kosher, though the government doesn’t define kosher, in some states it can protect consumers who purchase kosher food by ensuring that the regulations governing representation of kosher food are adequately enforced and businesses don’t promote fraud.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld New York’s Kosher Law Protection Act, passed in 2004, ruling that it does not interfere with religion in any way and exists solely for preventing fraud. The law allows food sellers and producers to decide for themselves what kosher practices to follow.

Some people would like the government to define vegan. But the question becomes (like kosher or organic) who then decides what vegan means, and if stringent or less stringent definitions are used. For example, though often products with an unknown source of cane sugar are called or labeled vegan, would a government rule allow this or not in a vegan food? Who would decide?


Vegan Food Preparation in Restaurants
In the case of preparation technique in restaurants, if of concern to you, you may want to ask the manager before ordering. This information will not be on food packages and may not be reflected even in nutritional listings (available upon request at some restaurants).

You can ask specific questions such as:
Do you fry meat, poultry, fish or seafood in the same oil used to fry plant foods like potatoes or breaded vegetables?
Do you fry meat or fish on the same grill surface used to fry vegetables or tofu?
If you have separate grill surfaces for meats and vegetables, do you use separate cooking utensils, too?

If these are of concern to you, you may feel better eating in vegetarian restaurants.

For reference see:

The Vegetarian Resource Group labeling article
FDA 2016 regulation on restaurant menus
FDA 2014 guidance on labeling
FDA 2013 guidance on labeling

The contents of this posting, our website, and our other publications, including Vegetarian Journal, are not intended to provide personal medical advice. Medical advice should be obtained from a qualified health professional. We often depend on product and ingredient information from company statements. It is impossible to be 100% sure about a statement, info can change, people have different views, and mistakes can be made. Please use your best judgment about whether a product is suitable for you. To be sure, do further research or confirmation on your own.

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