How 'vegan friendly' beer highlights lack of labelling regulations for plant-based products
It can be difficult to determine whether a beer is suitable for vegans if the package doesn't say so
Growing Vegan is a multiplatform CBC Vancouver series that explores how the business of veganism thrives in B.C.
Jorden Foss was surprised when a long-time vegan friend recently asked whether his brewery's beer was suitable for her diet.
His immediate answer was "absolutely." But it made the Steel & Oak Brewing co-owner suddenly aware of a wider confusion about beer and its ingredients and spurred him into action — and now the brewery's new releases have the words "vegan friendly" on their labels.
The New Westminster, B.C., brewery is one of several across the province that has voluntarily added a similar tag to its packaging, where appropriate, in a bid to cap consumer confusion over whether a beer is completely meat and dairy free.
Vegan advocates, while applauding such grassroots efforts, say it points to a much bigger problem behind labelling of food and drink in Canada — and that the government must do more to standardize labelling on, and regulation of, vegan products.
For Foss, it was an issue of transparency.
"As soon as we started labelling that [our beer] was vegan friendly, people started reaching out as if we were the only vegan-friendly brewery in the province, and we're not. There are many other vegan-friendly breweries. They just don't talk about it as much," he said.
"It's just being open. We're proud of the ingredients that go in, so we should talk about it a bit more."
Certain alcoholic products, including beer, wine and whisky, aren't legally required to list ingredients on their labels, according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), which is responsible for labelling information on food and drink products in Canada.
There is also no legal requirement to label products as suitable for vegans or vegetarians. Producers that do make such claims are trusted to be telling the truth, according to the CFIA; enforcement is done through random testing or following up consumer complaints, the agency says.
This can potentially leave vegan consumers in the dark when it comes to choosing a drink that conforms to their diet.
In its basic form, beer — water, grain, hops and yeast — is suitable for vegan drinkers. When additional ingredients are added to the recipe, it should be obvious by the style of beer that they aren't appropriate for those following a meat and dairy-free diet — an oyster stout or a milkshake IPA, for example.
But certain animal or fish-based additives known as "finings" are still used by some breweries to clarify their beer, and their presence is rarely, if ever, declared on the label.
Adding to the confusion is the lack of a standard seal or terminology for vegan-friendly beer. Steel & Oak simply spells out "vegan friendly." Four Winds Brewing in Delta, B.C., meanwhile, has long sported a "V" symbol on its beer packaging.
Vegan advocate Anna Pippus explains that product labelling can be made up of both voluntary "values claims" — claims that are only expected to not mislead, such as "vegan friendly" or "grain fed" — and detailed ingredient descriptions required by law.
Pippus, a Vancouver-based lawyer and director of the Plant-based Policy Centre, feels that regulation around vegan labelling needs to be standardized, and that means it has to come from the government.
"For companies to be voluntarily labelling something vegan friendly, I think that's fantastic. But it would be nice if there was some standardization in that — so, what does it mean?" she said.
For government to pay attention, consumer demand has to reach a critical mass, Pippus says. She points to the debate over whether genetically modified ingredients should be listed on food labels, which has become heated enough to generate federal action, including three major government consultations since 1993.
"So far, we haven't had the push to have that required labelling, that required disclosure," she said.
Another labelling option for vegan products is through advocacy organizations like the Vegan Society of Canada, which offers certification.
However, there's difficulty in grandfathering a seal of approval for products that claim to be vegan friendly, when their manufacturing, packaging or supply chain may not be up to the society's standards which have an ethical as well as dietary scope.
The society says it has asked the CFIA to update its definition of veganism, which currently simply states "permits plant foods only."
But there are already signs that labelling — for beer, at least — is evolving.
Earlier this year, the CFIA made it mandatory for breweries to declare any allergens and gluten sources on their beer packaging, though the industry was given a transition period until the end of 2022 to do so.
Even with the relative lack of requirements for beer labels, Foss thinks more breweries will start adding more details voluntarily.
"I suspect as breweries grow and talk to more people, I think you'll see more and more people at least list ingredients on the can," he said.