When vegan takeout food isn't convenient

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Eating out and buying takeaway meals can sometimes be tricky, Dr Jeanette Rowley discusses what vegans should expect and what to do if you are disappointed with service.

The day it occurred to me that I was dealing with an increasing number of complaints from vegans about the food retail business, I coincidentally found myself involved in a discussion with a chocolate shop owner who was selling vegan chocolates stacked in a pyramid of dairy milk chocolates. During our discussion, the shop keeper commented that I was a “serious vegan”. “Regardless of this”, I replied, “you are contaminating non-dairy chocolate with dairy allergens which could result in a life and death situation for some people.”

The next day, I received two emails and three phone calls from vegans who had asked food retailers important questions about ingredients in non-prepacked food. At first, the vegans in question thought they had obtained satisfactory answers but then realised the foodservice providers in question had been careless at least, incompetent, or even malicious at worst because the food sold to them was unsuitable for vegans. It contained animal-derived ingredients, some of which were also allergens. 

These complaints are the latest in a growing number against food retailers. So, let’s look at what we should expect from food outlets and what we can do when we don’t get the service we are entitled to.

Laughing people sharing salad at a table
In the UK food business operators are subject to the Food Information Regulations 2014.

Relevant EU food law recognises that consumers’ choices can be influenced by several factors, including health, economic, environmental, social and ethical considerations. Existing law aims to protect consumers’ health but also the right to sufficient and appropriate information to ensure they can make choices according to their ethical needs. Under the regulations, staff in cafés, restaurants, takeaways or other eateries must be able to communicate with you effectively about vegan food options. They must show competence and knowledge, and communicate accurate and clear answers to your questions about ingredients derived from nonhuman animals, including questions about milk and other possible dairy ingredients in the food you wish to buy. If you ask, they must also be able to reassure you that they have done everything that they can to avoid cross-contamination of vegan food with non-vegan ingredients during all stages as far as possible and practicable, from storage to preparation to cooking and display. If they cannot provide this guarantee they must inform you.

Because there is a relationship between discussions about vegan food and allergens such as eggs, milk (and milk products) fish and crustaceans, vegans might like to know that allergen information must be provided to the consumer for both pre-packed and non-prepacked food or drink, and must be easily accessible, visible, and clearly legible to all consumers. Although allergen labelling does not constitute the entirety of information vegans need, they often take the bold text on pre-packed foods into consideration but are having problems in the non-prepacked sector.

Regulations for non-prepacked food concern food sold loose, for example, bread sold in bakery shops, meals served in a restaurant and food from a takeaway, and even sweets and chocolates sold loose. 

The Food Standards Agency advises that in a restaurant or cafe, you should be provided with allergen information in writing. For example, full allergen information might be found on a menu, in an information pack, or on a written notice which is clearly visible. If you are self-serving from a buffet then you should see allergen information for each food item separately. If you don’t see written information, you should see a sign saying that you can speak to the staff. In addition, if you are reassured by staff about your concerns, the information given to you that you rely on should be backed up by written evidence. You should never feel awkward about asking to read the labels on any of the bought-in products that a food outlet uses. 

High street view

The Food Standards Agency also advises that if you are buying food over the phone or placing an online order for a takeaway, clear allergen information must be provided at two stages. Once before the purchase of the food is completed, for example, on a website or leaflet or orally if placing a phone order. The second stage is when the food is delivered, for example, by way of allergen stickers on food or in another written format, such as a leaflet or menu that includes the relevant additional information.

Food providers are under a duty to ensure all staff are suitably trained to deal with customer queries and that they understand and respect food regulations, guidelines and policies. Food providers can find out more about allergens here.

Both food retailers and the general public can find out more about food standards here, including information about intentional dishonesty and the ‘food crime’ of misrepresentation, which is marketing or labelling a product to wrongly portray its quality, safety, origin or freshness. 

For more information about compliance, businesses and members of the public can contact their local trading standards or environmental health department. 

Complaints about breaches of food regulations should be made to the retailer in question, the relevant local authority trading standards or environmental health department. More serious complaints can be made to The Food Standards Agency.

Consumers seeking assistance should contact Citizens Advice Bureau here.

Vegans also have the option to take private legal action against a retailer, but should first seek professional advice regarding the specific circumstances of the claim. For information and support, vegans can contact The Vegan Society.

By Dr Jeanette Rowley

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