Labelling something as vegan – be it a recipe, bottle of wine, an item on a menu, a pair of shoes – is a sure way to draw in those of that persuasion. Though the term is meant to show inclusiveness, in that people of all needs can use or consume the product in question, does it instead give the impression that a product is exclusively for those who identify as being vegan? Could it possibly be turning non-vegans away?
Why vegans need labels
You would hope that things which are obviously suitable for vegans, say fruit and vegetables, are actually suitable for vegans. But no. A waxed lemon could be covered in something that comes from bees. Sugar is sometimes refined with bone char. Apple juice may be filtered with gelatine. On the other hand, you can make a safe assumption that some other products, such as beer and wine, are not vegan (or even vegetarian) unless the label explicitly states this is the case. In these days of uncertainty, unless it says it is, vegans assume it isn’t.
And why they don’t
A vegan who relies on ‘suitable for’ labelling misses out on lots of good stuff. Cuisines such as Ethiopian-Eritrean, Indian and Middle Eastern are from cultures that may not have the word ‘vegan’ in their vocabularies but nevertheless are not as reliant on meat and dairy products as westerners (or northerners) are. Indeed, the group of 1940s radicals in the UK who called themselves ‘vegan’ did so in response to a culture where animal products had become ubiquitous. There may not be a word for it in every part of the world but this doesn’t necessarily mean veganism is unusual, simply that it may be all too common.
Why non-vegans shouldn’t read labels
There may be non-vegans out there who assume that something described as ‘vegan’ is not suitable for them, and that they are excluded rather than included. If this is the case, take that non-vegan by the shoulders and shake them! For these people, a ‘suitable for’ or ‘vegan friendly’ label may give off a less exclusive vibe than an outright ‘vegan’ stamp. Further, and unfortunately, mentioning the word may invoke the association (true or not) of flavourlessness which almost certainly turns people off. But then perhaps people who don’t have specific dietary requirements aren’t looking at the label anyway.
Mandatory negative labelling, along the lines of ‘not suitable for’, ‘vegan-unfriendly’ or ‘contains animal ingredients’, ‘tested on animals’, could help us all out. We could argue for it under the banner of consumer protection. In the meantime, it may be best just not to think about the fish guts that is almost certainly swimming in your ale.