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Jordi Casamitjana, the author of the book “Ethical Vegan”, interviews Carissa Kranz, CEO of the vegan accreditation company BeVeg, to discuss the problems of Vegan labelling.

How do you know it’s Vegan-friendly?

By reading the label, you may think. The first years after becoming Vegan I used to do an unusual thing. When I was in a non-Vegan shop, I would pick up items I already knew were not suitable for Vegans, and I would read the label. Then, as if I had just discovered an animal ingredient, I would reject the item and put it back on the shelf. That active rejection made me feel powerful. I enjoyed saying “No” to animal products much more than I enjoyed consuming Vegan products. I felt that, for the first time in my life, I had control over what I was purchasing, and I was free from malicious influences of the marketing wizards of the animal exploitation industries. Their spells did no longer work on me. I could reject their products without any difficulty.

However, for that experience to work, I had to trust that what I was reading in the labels was accurate. I had to believe that the list of ingredients reflected what the product was made of. I was younger and more naïve then because I have learnt since that I should not blindly trust the labels of any product. Not even those that have the word “Vegan” on them. Unfortunately, whether a product is suitable for Vegans or not is something that, more often than not, its label will not tell you.

There is a person who knows a lot about this. About Vegan labels and list of ingredients. About trusting companies’ claims and about consumer awareness. About how to solve the Vegan label problem.

Carissa Kranz is an American ballerina-turned lawyer, entrepreneur, TV host, philanthropist, author, and CEO of the BeVeg Vegan certification. Ah, and she is a Vegan from birth! I thought it would be interesting to interview her and find out how can we be certain that a product is suitable for us.

Vegan from Day One

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Not every day do I get to interview adults that have been Vegan for life. I did it once, interviewing Russell Howard for an article I wrote titled ‘Vegan For Half A Century‘. Now I had another chance, so I asked Carissa when she realised that she was a Vegan.

My mom had a Vegan pregnancy with me. Actually, she was raised vegetarian, and she decided that dairy didn’t make her feel good, so she went Vegan during her pregnancy. I was born and mostly just breastfed. And then, when my parents got divorced, when I was about five years old, my mom wanted to continue to raise me Vegan. And my dad did not want to raise me Vegan. They had different views on that, so when I had to spend half the week with my dad, my mom basically told me at a young age, ‘you’re going to go to your dad and he’s going to try to feed you chicken, and fish, and McDonald’s, and a happy meal, and I can’t control what you’re going to do when you’re with your dad, but this is what it is.’ She explained to me that a hamburger is a cow and that a hot dog is a pig. I then made the connection that I loved animals and I didn’t want to eat any animal.

At about five years old I actually became a conscious Vegan and made that choice at that age. When I‘d go play at friendshouses and they would make tuna fish sandwiches or hot dogs and milk, I was very conscious and aware to say is that soymilk?’ or is that what I was used to eating at home? And I had the resolve to not eat it. I was empathetic and compassionate towards the animals.

When I was still living in Miami, I remember writing Skittles a letter when I found out that they had gelatine in them. And I remember saying ‘I’m a Vegan’. And I was six or seven years old.

My mom was a Vegan for health reasons, it wasn’t because of the animals for her. For me, I made the choice to stay Vegan because of the animals, and it just so happens to be a healthier lifestyle. But back then, it wasn’t necessarily a healthier lifestyle in terms of what the public perceived Veganism to be. My dad was very concerned that I would be deficient and that I needed milk for my bones and animal meat for my ability to function in this world, but I‘ve never broken a bone in my body and I did ballet professionally so certainly I haven’t had a deficiency due to a Vegan lifestyle.”

The Genesis of BeVeg

BeVeg Logo

In 2016 Carissa discovered, to her surprise, that not all drinks that have no animal ingredients listed in the label are suitable for Vegans, as animal products may have been used in their manufacture to clarify or filter them. Her reaction was to create a new comprehensive Vegan standard that covers much more than the ones available at the time. In 2017 she created BeVeg, which is a Vegan certification company that is ISO accredited (International Organisation for Standardisation) and is recognized by the world accreditation forum for its internationally accredited Vegan standard. Carissa explains more:

“It started with me ordering an alcoholic beverage and my friend telling me what might be in that beverage. Then I started Googling it and reading all about isinglass and gelatine, and all these hidden ingredients that can go into your drinks that the laws don’t require disclosure of. Then I started doing more research about the FDA disclosure of laws allowing you to round down to zero if an ingredient has less than 0.5 grams per serving, which is pretty bad. That means you can claim sugar-free, gluten-free, Vegan, and all sorts of misleading label claims can happen. So, the more research I did, the more I realised that the laws need to change. Consumer protection laws are in place to protect the consumer, and the consumer is not protected right now in terms of Vegan claims.

I basically decided to merge my passions: the law was one passion, Veganism was another passion. And I started to learn about food safety standards, GFSI benchmark standards and drafted a global standard. It’s about 150 pages. It is an ISO accredited standard with allergen controls audit checklist.

The BeVeg standard goes far beyond any other Vegan or vegetarian standard that is out there. It looks wider, deeper, and checks everything on the ground, not just on paper.

We have compulsory audits, which means we have the mechanisms in place to actually enforce a Vegan claim and Vegan integrity. We don’t just do an ingredient sourcing desktop review. We require that the manufacturing facility participates in the Vegan certification process, that they register, and that they update their standard operating procedures to contemplate a commitment to BeVeg and Vegan standards, just like they must commit to Kosher, Gluten, and non-GMO. So, we require the updating of the standard operating procedures so we go at the factory level and the supply chain level, and only the products that are verified from the factory level and the supply chain level can then have the right to use the BeVeg trademark.

I wanted to be sure I understood what would it mean if a product has a BeVeg certification, so Carissa explained more:

It would be free from animal material, free from animal GMOs, and free from animal contamination at the factory level. It would have standard operating procedures in place which would show a seniorlevel commitment at the factory level to Vegan controls, Vegan protocol, Vegan integrity, and no animal testing on the product. A Vegan claim is 100% plant-based and it is crueltyfree. A cruelty-free claim is not always Vegan. A plant-based claim is not always Vegan. A plant-based claim is not always cruelty-free. And a cruelty-free claim is not always plant-based. But a Vegan claim is always 100% plant-based and cruelty-free. BeVeg standard has the mechanisms and controls in place to enforce those ideals.

When Vegan Does Not mean Vegan

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We tend to believe the labels we read and assume that someone would have checked that if a product claims to be Vegan, it is. The reality is quite different:

“I think you can’t assume anything is Vegan unless it’s gone through a process because there’s no commitment to a standard and people don’t take the claim seriously. So long as companies can legally claim their Vegan themselves and write it on a label, we have a problem. Vegan means plant-based, Vegan means cruelty-free, Vegan means no contamination in an ideal world, and most of these factories have no controls in place to ensure no contamination. They use shared lines, and they don’t have cleaning mechanisms in place before product turnover.

Many Vegans who love animals may saywell we don’t care about that, we care about the cruelty. But the reality is we need to care about that because it keeps the supply chain accountable. And then, the moment a source ingredient is found to have contamination, then it’s a domino effect of replacing that ingredient, or changing the procedures. And then people realize how commercially viable we are, and we make more money in sales for them and their brand. They make more money by changing their practices to become more conscious and Vegan. So, it does matter to keep everybody accountable and aware and to raise their consciousness to respect a Vegan standard at the factory level.

I know that Vegan means that we are as practical as possiblein this world, and that’s what we need to do as Vegans. We should continue to buy products that at least label themselves as Vegan because at least we think it might be Vegan and on the path to Veganism. And they understand the importance of the marketing value of labelling Vegan. But I would not assume anything is Vegan unless it’s gone through a certification process at the factory level, all the way with ingredient review and audits. We see so many products that face problems that have to then fix their non-conformities before we can grant them the certification, and people don’t realise what goes on at the factory level.

People want to read ingredients, but the law allows you to round down to zero and not disclose it if there are less than 0.5 grams per serving. And the ingredients can be vague and say something like natural colours, or natural flavours, or natural charcoal, which is bone char. The ingredients list do not require full disclosure of everything that goes into the product, so when we are at the factory level doing these audits, we have approved Vegan lists.

We’re not like other Vegan labels they might just submit ingredients and review them. We have the factory disclose to us every single ingredient in their supplier that is carried at that facility, and we ensure that we have an approved Vegan list. And then, beyond that approved Vegan list, we have to make sure that their standard operating procedures have purchasing controls in place to ensure that something else isn’t purchased or exchanged out without us knowing it. We have label checks in place, we have colour coordination for mixing stations, we ensure separation and segregationbecause the reality is most of these facilities are shared facilities, and shared assembly lines, and shared manufacturing lines.

There are very few dedicated Vegan facilities. So, what we need to do is ensure that the facilities that are making these Vegan claimed products are certified by BeVeg. That they are compliant with Vegan controls and Vegan standards, so they can warrant that the products out of their facilities are in fact Vegan and that the ingredients were not switched out without us knowing it, or the supplier didn’t change without us knowing it. That can happen very easily with the paperwork review process. You can get a Vegan declaration from one supplier and then the brand can go switch the supplier and the company and BeVeg would never know about it. But with factory audits BeVeg is going to know about it because there are purchasing controls in place, and label checks, and there’s even batch testing, depending on what’s going on at the facility. If it’s a high-risk facility, there could be batch testing,which would be a DNA test or a lab test.”

What About Plant-Based?

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A few months ago, I wrote an article (The Vegan Case Against ‘Plant-Based’) expressing that, although I understand why it exists, I am not keen on the term ‘plant-based’, and particularly on the identity that someone may claim to have with it. It seems that Carissa agrees:

I never use plant-based. I’m really concerned about that word, plant-based. I think plant-based is a diet, it is not a lifestyle. It’s so wishy-washy. I understand it’s popular because people are afraid of the word Vegan, but I think, as Vegans, we need to stay away from that plant-based word as much as possible and replace it with the word Vegan to make it less scary to those that might be afraid of it. But plant-based is not ever a group of people that’s going to garner constitutional protections. I think Vegans will become a constitutionally protected class with strict scrutiny if we protect our identity properly.

I just had a conversation this last week with NSF, which is the world’s largest food safety certifier, and they’re rolling out BeVeg next week. I had to edit their press release and their website for BeVeg and Vegan certification, and I changed the Vegan all throughout the press release on their website to a capital V. I explained to them that it’s not like plant-based. It’s not like gluten-free. It’s not like non-GMO.

As I discuss in my book “Ethical Vegan”, for me the word Vegan is very important. The word, the concept, the philosophy, and the history (and I dedicated several chapters on all this). I asked Carissa if it is important for her too.

The word is really important and the Vegans, those who identify as Vegans, need to do everything in their power to protect it. To capitalise it. And when I say capitalise, I mean capitalise the V in the word Vegan. And really own the movement as an identity that they can protect now. The commercialism of it is popular for the plant-based flexitarian, it’s also popular for those that believe in consumer transparency. It makes it mainstream. I think Vegans need to protect the word and be very cautious about saying that they’re plant-based because Vegans do want legal protections in other areas, such as the workplace, such as in family law, such as in health care, such as in disabilities, such as in libel claims. And I think a very popular way to begin with those protections is on product labelling, because it is popular on products to everyone, whether they’re Vegan or not, to buy that Vegan claimed product. So, if we can carve out legislation and consumer protection laws to protect the word Vegan on products, then that’s just another protection in the law that we’ve created for the overall movement, for a self-identified Vegan to have constitutional protections.”

As the lawyer she is, I asked Carissa what she thought about my legal case that IN 2020 secured Ethical Veganism as a protected philosophical belief in Great Britain.

I think your case is an amazing win and foundational for the movement to build upon for other cases, because when case law is made, usually you have to rely on history and other cases in order to make decisions. Yours was a case of first impression in many ways, so yours is a landmark decision and a landmark case. So, to be trailblazing like that is heroic and going down in history for paving the way for constitutional protections. But in the United States, I think we have a longway to go in all areas of the law.

The Vegan identity has many dimensions, but one of the most important is the word Vegan itself, and what it means if a person self-defines as Vegan. I think that the fact that, in my legal case, I had to use the term “ethical vegan” to ensure the judge understood that I meant a person following the definition of the Vegan Society to the full — not just someone who follows the diet implied in the definition — illustrates what happens if you let people use the word for 80 years without preventing its core meaning becoming diluted. The adjective “ethical” allows us to protect it now, but it would have been nice if we would not have to use it to prevent people confusing full Vegans with dietary vegans.

The same goes for the adjective Vegan to define an object, product, or procedure. And this is when internationally recognised standards that set definitions in stone can be crucial. Although the various vegan standards and trademarks that have been created in different parts of the world, which are administered by different organisations (such as the Vegan Society, the Vegan Awareness Foundation, the Vegetarian Society or PETA), are good steps towards cementing the concept of Vegan products in the commercial world, having one that is ISO accredited and includes third-party audits on the ground is a step that goes even further.

I am all for protecting Vegan standards.