It may surprise many people but there is no legal definition of ‘vegan’, or ‘vegetarian’ in most European countries. Generally speaking the law simply requires that manufacturers ensure that they do not mislead consumers when using these terms. In practice, industry typically relies on various definitions created by regulators, standard-setting bodies, and charitable organisations. All of which leads to a great deal of uncertainty for consumers about whether a product is as ‘vegan’ or ‘vegetarian’ as they would like it to be.

In the UK there are competing definitions for the different terms. For example the ISO, the international body that develops and publishes international standards, recently launched a new standard for describing ‘vegetarian’ and ‘vegan’ that is different to The Vegetarian Society’s definition. The ISO has said that ‘vegetarian’ means products which are “not from animal origin” but The Vegetarian Society prohibits the use of ingredients ”resulting from slaughter”. With emerging technologies such as lab-grown meat on the horizon, where no slaughter is involved, could it be described as ‘vegetarian’?


‘Plant-based’ has emerged as a new and commonly used description for foods in this area. But in many markets there is uncertainty about what this term means and a real risk of confusing and misleading consumers. In its decision against Burger King, the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority said that the claim ‘plant-based burger’ meant that consumers would understand the product was suitable not only for vegetarians but also to the higher requirements expected by vegans.This is contrary to the new British standard, which determines that ‘plant-based’ is not the same as vegan. In Spain ‘plant-based product’ is legally defined as “unprocessed products of plant origin or…that have undergone simple preparation” which is as similar to (and as informative as) claiming a product is ‘natural’.

Burger King Rebel Whopper

Source: Burger King

The ASA banned ads for Burger King’s “plant-based” Rebel Whopper as it’s cooked on the same grill as meat and egg products

In France the debate has centred on the application of ‘meat terminology’ such as sausages and steak on non-meat products. Separate to the discussions on this topic in the European Parliament, the powerful French meat lobby has pushed for legislation banning such words on vegetarian or vegan products.

So what does this mean if you are looking to launch vegetarian, vegan or plant-based products in Europe? It will likely be necessary to take a market-by-market approach to labelling as the rules are quite different.

In some markets it may be worthwhile getting an independent certification or recognised trademark for your product. However, the current contradictory and confusing position can only be left unregulated for so long. Watch this space for new regulation and in the meantime be careful not to get carried away on the marketing bandwagon and make questionable claims on your products.