The Facts on Food Labelling


Posted 17/01/2019

In this article, we thought we would clarify some misunderstandings that people may have in relation to food labelling laws in Australia and New Zealand. Food labelling laws are covered under the Food Standards Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code. We have summarised the important points we wanted to clarify first and then we have added what a lot of the terms used in food labelling means at the end.
1. As there is no legal definition of the term vegan in Australia or New Zealand (at least as it relates to the Food Standards Code), we would recommend still checking and possibly verifying the ingredients in a product even if it says vegan or vegan friendly on the packaging. To be fair, it is rare for us to come across a product that states it is vegan and actually not be, but it does happen from time to time. We recently came across a bottle of wine that clearly stated it was suitable for vegans and vegetarians, but then also clearly listed egg whites as an ingredient (we posted this on Facebook a couple of weeks ago).
2. There are many instances where animal derived ingredients can be in a product even though the ingredients list does not state that any animal derived ingredients are present. Natural Flavours is a common one where animal derived ingredients could be present without being listed as such. Apple juice is another example of where animal derived ingredients can be used in the processing of the juice, but as the amount of trace material left is negligible, manufacturers do not have to list that cow or pig hooves (gelatine) was used to filter and process the apple juice. There is also a rule about compound ingredients which is discussed below.
3. Most manufactures add the may contain statement to their products, just to cover themselves from being sued in the rare case that someone buys their product and has some form of allergic reaction to a trace amount of a declared allergen because the product was made in the same facility as non vegan products. Some manufacturers actually put contains milk or milk derived ingredients instead of the standard may contain, which only makes it harder for vegans, but still perfectly legal as those terms are not regulated by the Code.
4. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE do not try to be Sherlock Holmes and try and deduce whether a product is vegan or not by trying to work out what the natural flavour or other non descriptive ingredients are in a product. It is impossible to work out without contacting the manufacturer, unless the manufacturer has explicitly listed what the natural flavour or other ingredient is derived from. It is also important to note that quite a number of approved additives can be either animal or non animal derived but still be listed as the same additive number, again facilitating the need to contact the manufacturer to clarify.
5. Remember that just because a product is listed as vegetarian and you do not see dairy or egg listed as an allergen, that does not mean the product is vegan. There are numerous non vegan ingredients that would be classed as vegetarian but not vegan that are not declared allergens. Honey and vitamin D3 are just a couple of examples.
We do all of the hard work for you with our Fussy Vegan Scanner app. You can be assured that we diligently verify the ingredients on every single product that we have listed on our Fussy Vegan Scanner app, which as of today (17.01.2019) is just over 60,000 products and growing.
For those that are interested, we have included some definitions and quotes from the Code for your reference.
Declared Allergens - The following ingredients are considered declared allergens by Food Standards Australia New Zealand: Peanuts, tree nuts, dairy, eggs, sesame seeds, fish, shellfish, soy, lupin wheat and other gluten containing cereals (rye, barley, oats, spelt, and hybrid strains of these cereals). In addition to the declared allergens, any food product that contains the ingredient royal jelly (a bee product) is required to have a warning statement. Sulphites must also be declared on the label if added at 10 (or more) milligrams per kilogram of food.
Exemptions to declared allergens being required to be labeled - in 2016, a change was made to the Code to remove mandatory allergen labelling requirements for the following declared allergen derived ingredients:
- Glucose syrups made from wheat starch (subject to low limits)
- Fully refined soy oil
- Soy derivatives (tocopherols and phytosterols)
- Distilled alcohol from wheat or whey
Sulphites - Sulphites are naturally occurring minerals that are found naturally in some foods and also used in other foods as an additive to prevent microbial spoilage and preserve colour. There is a lot of discussion around whether excessive exposure to sulphites pose a heath risk or not, and we will not be going into detail here, as this is not the focus of this article. The Code requires sulphites to be declared (as per the above definition of declared allergens) so that those that might be sensitive to sulphites are aware that sulphites are present in a product.
Gluten Free - The terms gluten free and low gluten are regulated by The Food Standards Code. Manufacturers using this term need to follow the regulations in the Code. The reason these terms are regulated by the Code is because they concern safety issues due to being a declared allergen and for people with Coeliac Disease.
Vegan - The term vegan as well as the terms vegetarian, halal and kosher are not regulated by the Food Standards Code. The reason that these terms are not regulated is that there are no public safety concerns around whether a product is vegan, vegetarian, halal or kosher. What this means is that there is no legal definition of the word vegan.
May Contain - Some food labels use the terms may contain or may be present about certain allergens such as may contain milk, etc. These are voluntary statements made by manufacturers and are not regulated by the Code.
Natural and Artificial Flavours - The term natural flavour refers to any ingredient uses as a flavour that is made from either an animal or plant source. The term artificial flavour refers to any ingredient used as a flavour that is synthetically produced in a laboratory. You may see the term synthetic used in place of artificial.
Ingredients List - Ingredients must be listed in descending order by ingoing weight. This means that when the food was manufactured, the first ingredient listed contributed the largest amount and the last ingredient listed contributed the least. There are two specific statements in the Code that are important for any vegan to be mindful of as it relates to ingredients in food products. The statements are similar but slightly different as one relates to additives and one relates to ingredients in general, so we have added both here:
Sometimes compound ingredients are used in a food. A compound ingredient is an ingredient made up of two or more ingredients e.g. canned spaghetti in tomato sauce, where the spaghetti is made up of flour, egg and water. All the ingredients which make up a compound ingredient must be declared in the ingredient list, except when the compound ingredient is used in amounts of less than 5% of the final food. An example of a compound ingredient that could be less than 5% of the final food is the tomato sauce (consisting of tomatoes, capsicum, onions, water and herbs) on a frozen pizza. However, if an ingredient that makes up a compound ingredient is a known allergen it must be declared regardless of how much is used.
And the second statement relates specifically to additives:
Some foods are not required to be labelled with a statement of ingredients, for example, unpackaged food, food contained in a small package (i.e. a package with a surface area of less than 100 cm2). Food additives in these foods are therefore also not required to be labelled. Sometimes compound ingredients are used in a food. A compound ingredient is an ingredient made up of two or more ingredients, for example, tomato paste containing tomato, olive oil, dried herbs, sugar, salt, and a preservative which is incorporated into a meat casserole. The ingredients (including food additives) of a compound ingredient don’t have to be listed if the compound ingredient makes up less than 5% of the final food. However, if additives in the compound ingredient perform a purpose in the final food, they have to be declared in the statement of ingredients.