Imported Packaged Foods wrongly marked Vegetarian

The Government of India has made it mandatory for all packaged food items to be affixed with the vegetarian/non-vegetarian symbol (green/brown coloured square with a dot within) and this applies to imported foods as well. However, importers do tend to affix the green vegetarian symbol on most presumed vegetarian products like cheeses and pastas – deliberately or due to ignorance, Beauty Without Cruelty is not sure.

BWC has therefore periodically taken up this issue of imported packaged food items marked with the green vegetarian symbol although the ingredients are non-vegetarian. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) say they are not empowered to take significant action against importers, and the Government of India couldn’t care less or else they’d at least respond saying they were looking into such grave lapses!

In 2005 one of our members informed us that although taurine was an ingredient of the Red Bull energy drink, it was marked with the veg symbol. We immediately drew the attention of the FDA that taurine was derived from ox-bile. Stocks were seized, and a case was filed against them, but the Court accepted their statement that “apparently taurine was first discovered as a part of ox bile (so it is of animal origin), but a synthetic taurine analog called acamprosate (calcium acetylhomotaurinate) has been developed” and they re-started marketing the product as veg.

Below are a couple of examples of imported packaged foods wrongly marked vegetarian:

• Shrimp is listed as an ingredient in the Namjai brand’s curry and soup pastes, imported from Thailand. Their website states “Products sold as vegetarian often contain minute quantities of fish sauce or shrimp paste”. They also claim that their vegetarian product range is approved by the UK Vegetarian Society. (Sic!)
• Anchovies (small fish) in Lea and Perrins’ Worcestershire Sauce.
• Barilla pastas (macaroni, spaghetti, etc) boxes which display alongside ingredients “IT MAY CONTAIN EGG TRACES”.

The importers, who have affixed the vegetarian symbol on these non-vegetarian products, are primarily at fault.

Certain foreign cheeses also wrongly display the vegetarian symbol although rennet has been declared as an ingredient without stating its origin which could be animal. For example, Kraft cheeses are not all vegetarian, and some clearly state that the rennet utilised is “made from cows” yet some of these cheeses carry the vegetarian symbol affixed by the Indian importer.

Sometimes the origins of ingredients are unknown and verbal circularity is confusing, as in “cheese” being listed as an ingredient in cheeses. The ingredient “cheese” could be made with animal rennet. Supposing a vegetarian consumer (wrongly presuming all cheese to be vegetarian since by law all Indian made cheese has to be so) simply asks the shopkeeper for a packet of cheese there is a fair chance that non-vegetarian foreign cheese containing calf rennet will be sold and subsequently consumed due to not having read the ingredients’ label.

If casein is an ingredient of a veg-marked creamer used in tea and coffee, one needs to beware because casein is the principle milk protein derived either by adding an acid, or the enzyme rennin obtained from the stomachs of animals. Therefore the creamer (even if labelled “non-dairy creamer”) will not be vegan, and may not be lacto-veg either, but in fact, turn out to be non-vegetarian.

Ingredients of some foreign made sweets and chocolates are sometimes beef, gelatine, eggs, shellac, honey, whey, alcohol, etc. It is therefore important to take the trouble to read the long list of ingredients, and not go by the vegetarian symbol (even if affixed) or what the shopkeeper says because it could have been simply presumed that confectionary is always vegetarian. The consumer may also need to refer to the E Numbers list for deciphering numbers stated in the list of ingredients on the packages.

Below are two examples of chocolates marked with the veg symbol:

• A BWC member found glazing agent E904 listed as an ingredient on a box of foreign chocolate and upon looking up the number discovered it was shellac. While this is Okay under India’s labelling laws (shellac is not considered non-veg) the chocolates were not vegetarian.
• Another person discovered whey powder listed as an ingredient on a box of imported Rochero Ferrero chocolates marked with the green veg symbol. The chocolates had been manufactured in Italy so it was more likely than not that the whey used had been derived through cheese-making with calf rennet. In this case the brown non-veg symbol should have been affixed on the box but was not. The company obviously has no respect for Indian laws or consumers because on one of their recent products both veg and non-veg symbols have been affixed making BWC complain about it to the Food and Drug Administration.

Along the same lines, in May 2007 it was revealed that some of UK’s best-selling chocolate bars such as Mars, Twix, Snickers, Maltesers, Bounty, Minstrels, and all Milky Way products, along with ice-cream versions of these chocolates, were no longer suitable for vegetarians because of whey derived from animal rennet used as an ingredient. We do not know whether it continues to be utilised so ingredient labels should be checked.

The answer lies in being very particular, reading labels carefully, checking ingredients thoroughly (more so if no vegetarian or non-vegetarian symbol is found on the packaged foods) and never to go by hearsay, guesses, assumptions, or extrapolations to ascertain whether products are vegetarian/vegan.

When in doubt, it would be wise not to purchase such products – and inform BWC.

Page last updated on 04/03/14