When “Suitable for vegetarians” means everything but that!

This post is not strictly about vegetarianism as a lifestyle; it is, instead, about the use, and misuse of the word vegetarian and, particularly, of the expression suitable for vegetarians. Therefore, I ask for comments that are about the linguistic characteristics and not about the life choice, because that debate, although interesting, is not pertinent here.

I am one of those who are constantly reading the labels and the ingredients when buying food and drinks. Living in the UK, one of the most common symbols on packages is the one that guarantees that the product is suitable for vegetarians. I am no expert, but I know that vegetarian is a wide, blur concept that can include people who don’t eat meat and fish, but also those who don’t eat eggs or milk, or both. On a broader analysis, if I am not wrong, people can choose to be vegetarian not only to avoid eating animals, but also because they are against the modern farming techniques and, more in general, for an ecological reason, since the production of meat is, among other things, really damaging the planet.

With all these points clear, my question is: “What does suitable for vegetarians really mean?” I see it too often on packages of products that contain plenty of products that are not really suitable for vegetarians; even when they are, the company’s policies are sometimes awfully harmful for the planet and the environment.

Who knows me, have heard me talking about my choice of avoiding as much as I can consuming products that contain palm oil. This ingredient is possibly the worst oil that we can consume, both for our body and for the Earth, and if we don’t mind about our health, we should at least make sure that we are buying sustainable palm oil, which means that we are not destroying the forests and endangering the indigenous species, the gorillas in particular. Starbucks is one of those companies that uses, according to its website, 100% sustainable palm oil.

From my point of view, that you can share or not, if someone choses to be vegetarian should also be careful and buy products that are not damaging the environment. Too many companies declare that their products are suitable for vegetarians, but they should just be shut down for unethical practices against the planet. Krispy Kreme is one of them, since they use palm oil without specifying the sources, but not only. From direct sources, I know that in the UK they use Belgian chocolate, but what they do is to buy it from Belgium, send it to the US and then back to the UK because all the ingredients they use have to come from the States. We could say a lot about the chocolate, which should also come from sustainable sources, exactly as the coffee and this kind of products that are originally from countries that Europe uses to have cheap, underpaid products, but what concerns me now is not that, since I have no proven information about that in this case. What disgusts me is that a product that could reach London on a short truck trip has to go to the other half of the globe and back just to receive a stamp, wasting resources and polluting for no reason. Do you, vegetarians, still consider these products suitable for you and respectful of your lifestyle?

What makes me mad is that no real, binding legislation seems to exist about the labelling of products on this sense. Companies can simply write vegetable oil or suitable for vegetarians meaning whatever they want. The United States (forgive me if I keep praising them, but some examples are really worth to be followed) are a lot clearer on their labels, stating the kind of oil used almost always, and very often there is no palm oil in their products.

There is also another aspect that makes me sad: I have been working in a shop serving food for a very long time, and the vast majority of people asking: “Is it suitable for vegetarians?” really meant to ask if the products were halal certified. The two things are completely different, and they shouldn’t be used interchangeably, because it seemed too often to me as if “is it suitable for vegetarians?” were the politically correct version of “Is it halal?” There is no politically correct or incorrect in these cases (and there shouldn’t be in plenty of other cases as well,) no one should need euphemisms to ask these kind of questions!

It may be purely my impression, but I feel like the legislation in this field is too ambiguous, and the controls too weak, so everyone can declare anything without really having to prove anything about their practices or their supplies. The sad part is that I see very little hope for the situation to improve soon. The problem of animal testing, similar to this, is still in a similar situation, despite the decades of fights and the huge amount of laws, because the loopholes are still too large in numbers, and companies are more than happy of playing with language ambiguities.