The aisles of Trader Joes are quiet as my dad peers at the list of ingredients on the can of tomato soup. I can see the strain in his eyes as he squints to read the fine print, lifting his glasses and moving closer and closer to the words. After a frustrating 10 minutes, he slams the can down in exasperation and walks out of the store.
Unfortunately, this is the case for many vegetarians. The absence of a label certifying that a product is fully meat-free has resulted in aggravation among the growing population of people going “veggie” throughout the world.
The “Vegetarian Society” Organization defines a vegetarian as a person that does not eat any type of food product that is made with animal products or cooked in the same machines that have previously cooked meats including seafood. In 2008, the count of vegetarians in the US was about 7.3 million; however, the number has since grown, resulting in the high demand for products that exclude meat.
Although the number of food options for “herbivores” has always been limited, the amount of products that are meat-free has grown significantly. There’s “Tofurkey” for Thanksgiving and fake burgers grilled to perfection for a Fourth of July barbecue. And many other sealed products such as pasta’s or soups have no animal products in them. The only problem is knowing which ones.
In 2006, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) created guidelines that helped vegetarians and vegans by creating a list of criteria, such as the verification of the absence of meat or any type of contamination with meat, that a product must meet in order for it to be eligible for a label, guaranteeing that it is one hundred percent meat-free. Sounds like an easy fix to the problem, right?
Because the labels are not mandatory, vegetarians must rely on the list of ingredients printed in size 4 font near the bottom of the can. The list is often notably complex, including ingredients with names like Ascorbic Acid and Monosodium Glutamate. People can never be fully sure of what is in it, never mind what isn’t. Many grocery stores think they have found a solution by placing their own “suitable for vegetarians” label on the products. However, the store’s definition of meat-free, is often much different than the consumer’s.
People could argue that it is a personal choice to become a vegetarian and why should stores have to compensate for the few that are. Why would you want to turn away customers willing to shop at your supermarket because of a refusal to adopt a simple label? It’s true, becoming a vegetarian can be a personal choice, but it can also be a part of a certain religion or specific diet. Several religions require you to maintain a meat-free diet, including no consumption of animal byproducts or cross-contamination with meat. A label would allow vegetarians of all types to feel confident in what they are consuming, rather than debate whether to purchase the item they are unsure contains meat ingredients.
In 2004, Lisa Tsering wrote in “Health Insights” the story of a woman who prepared a packet of pasta, knowing that it’s ingredients were meat-free. However, as she began to eat, she noticed the slight taste of meat in the pasta. After calling the number on the package that reassured her fear of the product containing meat as one of its “flavors,” she then decided to express her disgust through a letter of complaint towards the company. Her frustrations were only answered with a lame reply of “we can never be sure whether a product contains meat traces or not,” an answer that would not only keep her away from the product, but from the supermarket where it was sold.
Many organizations have created labels that some companies, even large companies, have begun to use, certifying that the product is fully vegetarian. Organizations are also trying to educate people on what it means to have a diet that does not include meat products and the proper way to handle vegetarian foods. Whole Foods is an example of a grocery store that does incorporate the use of labels on it’s products. This eliminates all confusion, allowing the buyer to simply pick up a product, check the back for a label or indication of whether the product contains meat or not.
Many vegetarians are hopeful that as time goes on, more and more companies will begin to use the labels, effectively attracting a wider range of shoppers. Now let’s tackle that fish smell!