Calls for Labeling Grow After Meats Are Found in 'Veggie' Foods
By Lisa Tsering
While preparing dinner one night last February, Supriya Kelkar didn't think twice before tearing open a package of Lipton SideKicks Broccoli and White Cheddar Pasta mix. Kelkar, a vegetarian, had read the package's label in the supermarket earlier. Among the ingredients listed on the package were pasta, salt, cornstarch, cheddar and blue cheese, whey, broccoli, MSG, spices, autolyzed yeast extract, maltodextrin, and natural flavors.
What came next shocked Kelkar. "I had a taste of the pasta, and I immediately sensed something meaty" she told India-West. So she called the 800 number of Lipton's customer service to ask if the product contained meat as one of its "natural flavors." She was told by a representative that it was safe to assume that it did. Kelkar, 23, a vegetarian since her teens, decided to write a letter to complain. "(The customer service rep) explained that Lipton does not need to disclose that information to the public because meat is not a common allergen," Kelkar wrote in her letter. "I find this completely and utterly offensive."
Two months later, she received a reply from Warren Blume, a spokesperson for Lipton's parent company, Unilever Bestfoods: "We cannot always guarantee that the ingredients are dairy, meat and egg free," he wrote. "In speaking to our consumers, a majority of people found this to be an acceptable solution." "His email was infuriating," Kelkar told India-West by phone last week from her home in Detroit. To say, "We tested it, and most consumers thought it was okay, was very patronizing."
Kelkar began to suspect that meat was hiding in many packaged foods on her shelf, such as Knorr soup and sauce mixes, Prego spaghetti sauces and Campbell soups, so she started writing letters to food companies, and even to the Food and Drug Administration, expressing her concern. She learned that not only was there no law requiring the disclosure of meat as an ingredient on food labels, but that few companies seemed to care. "With a lot of companies, such as Kraft, their indifference was almost insulting," she said. Many companies cite "proprietary reasons" for their refusal to disclose whether their natural flavors contain meat.
On the surface, the solution to her problem would seem quite simple stop buying MSG-laden processed foods and cook everything from scratch; seek out frozen or packaged foods from natural foods companies such as Amy's Kitchen or Cascadian Farm, which offer a wide range of vegetarian entrees; or shop only in Indian grocery stores, where vegetarian foods are more likely to be clearly labeled and easy to find.
But that's not always convenient or practical. Kelkar, a member of the screenwriting team on Vidhu Vinod Chopra's Move 5 film project, often finds herself too busy to drive across town to search out a health food store. Busy working parents have even less time. And for vegetarians who live outside a major American city, their choices are fewer still.
"In this country, it seems like that sort of information should be disclosed," Kelkar said. "It seems like it should be a natural consideration."
Hidden Meat In Restaurants : Tejas Mehta, a CPA living in Anaheim, Calif., was a regular customer at a Marie Callender's restaurant there. "I used to go there regularly for Lions Club meetings," he recalled, "and I used to eat the same Fettucini Alfredo due to the lack of vegetarian choices."
He asked a waitress to check that the dish was vegetarian, and she "specifically confirmed" that it was, he said. Mehta, an adherent to the strictly vegetarian Jain religion, had heard from an acquaintance that some restaurants added chicken stock to their Alfredo sauce to keep it moist, so he asked the waitress to doublecheck. His fears were confirmed when she returned from the kitchen. "It had been non-vegetarian all along," he told India-West.
Mehta shared his concerns with others in the Jain community, and found that the practice was widespread. In an article he wrote and circulated on the Internet, he quoted other Jains with similar experiences: "We were shocked to find out that the beans and rice at El Torito Grill in Irvine, Calif., are made with chicken and/or beef stock," said Hansni Kamdar. "I have found out that soups, mashed potatoes, hash browns and rice are mostly made with beef/chicken broth," said Aarti Mehta. "I tell every Jain not to eat in any Mexican restaurant," said Geeta Khona.
"Some popular items that look vegetarian are really not what they appear to be," said Mehta. "Tortilla chips, rice and beans generally appear vegetarian on the face of it, but many restaurants use lard, chicken or beef stocks to make these items. I used to eat Caesar salad for a long time before I realized it is not vegetarian." (Many Caesar dressings contain anchovy and raw egg.)
"Isn't this an eye opener? It's about time issues like this are taken up with government agencies and consumer interest groups," said Mehta.
Do The Numbers : A 2003 national Harris Interactive survey question sponsored by the Vegetarian Resource Group concluded that about six percent of the United States population never eats meat (which translates to about 5.7 million people), while a Time magazine poll last year set the number at closer to 10 million. "A look at the increased number of vegetarian products now available is evidence that the interest in vegetarian foods has exploded in the last few years," states the VRG's report, which is posted on their Web site, www.vrg.org
The worries felt by Hindu and Jain vegetarians over food labeling are "not unfounded," VRG consumer research manager John Cunningham told India-West. "There is a good reason to worry ... the term "natural flavors' can mean almost anything."
Despite Kelkar's experiences, many food manufacturers have started to notice that the number of vegetarians in the U.S., compounded with the number of individuals who have chosen to cut back their consumption of meat for ethical or health reasons, adds up to a big chunk of the $13.4 billion natural foods market.
According to a survey by Mintel Consumer Intelligence, sales of vegetarian foods reached $1.25 billion in 2001, up from $893 million the year before, and Mintel analysts estimate the market could balloon to $2.8 billion by 2006.
Over the past few years, the country's biggest food conglomerates have slowly been taking over some of the best-known natural and vegetarian brands.
In 1999, the Kellogg Company purchased Worthington Foods, which makes an all-soy line of meat alternatives under the Morningside Farms label. The same year, General Mills purchased Cascadian Farm, a natural foods manufacturer with a wide selection of vegetarian entrees.
In 2000, Kraft Foods, the nation's largest packaged foods company, took over the all-vegetarian Boca Burger line. By the way, Kraft, which is owned by tobacco giant Philip Morris, also sells Oscar Meyer hotdogs.
The same year, ConAgra Inc., a $25-billion-plus food company whose brands include Chef Boyardee, Chun King and Marie Callender's frozen entrees, purchased Light life, the makers of all-tofu Smart Dogs.
Also in 2000, Heinz announced that it had spent $80 million to purchase 19.5 percent of the stock of the Hain Celestial Group (whose brands include Westbrae and Health Valley).
On the fast food front, Burger King has had success with its BK Veggie sandwich, and in early 2003, McDonald's started test-marketing a McVeggie sandwich on a whole wheat bun in 600 of its stores in Southern California.
Crafting Laws : Food producers marketing their products as vegetarian, or meat-free, now do so on a voluntary basis. Although meat must be mentioned on a food label if it appears as a stand-alone ingredient (such as in chicken or beef stock), meat may appear under a vague listing of "natural flavors" without the need to be identified.
Title 21, Chapter I, Part 101, Section 101.22 of the Code of Federal Regulations' FDA requirements on food labeling states: "The term natural flavor or natural flavoring means the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional" (emphasis added).
The laws governing the labeling of food are complex to the point of absurdity, points out Marion Nestle, professor and chair of the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University, in her book "Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology and Terrorism" (University of California Press).
For example, the U. S. Department of Agriculture regulates beef broth and dehydrated chicken soup, but the Food and Drug Administration regulates dehydrated beef soup and chicken broth; and the USDA regulates open-face meat and poultry sandwiches, while the FDA regulates closed-face meat and poultry sandwiches.
Adding to the confusion, lobbyists from the meat and other industries have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in an attempt to sway legislation.
As Nestle explains in her latest book, "Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health," food companies have been able to "exert disproportionate influence on government nutrition policy" through monetary contributions and by hiring well-connected former lawmakers in a "revolving door" system which invites conflicts of interest. Nestle cites an analysis of the travel practices of members of the House of Representatives for 1989-1990, for example, which showed that House members had collectively taken nearly 4,000 sponsored trips (two-thirds of them courtesy of corporations or trade associations), and had accepted more than $500,000 in honoraria. In 1996-97, she writes, one Congressional lawmaker had gone on no fewer than 26 trips paid for by the meat industry, valued at $18,550.
Till now, much of the debate over food labeling has arisen over issues such as genetically modified ingredients or the disclosure of country of origin.
Efforts to legislate the identification of meat in products have not made much progress; in 1999 Veggie Lawyers, a group of law students at George Washington University, petitioned the FDA to change their regulations and persuaded hundreds of citizens to write to the FDA in support; their campaign fizzled out in mid-2001.
But one lawmaker has renewed efforts to identify meat on product labels in an attempt to help not just vegetarians, but also consumers with allergies.
Nita M. Lowey, a Democratic Congresswoman from New York's 18th district, introduced H. R. 467, also known as the "Food Ingredient Right to Know Act," in the House of Representatives Jan. 29, 2003.
In a statement issued to India-West, Lowey who coincidentally, is a member of the India Caucus writes, "Every day, millions of Americans look to food ingredient statements to make critical health and dietary decisions. Unfortunately, getting accurate, reliable, and thorough information is a tedious, often impossible task. We must change the current regulations that do not require food manufacturers to identify the products used in certain flavorings and additives. That's why I introduced the Food Ingredient Right to Know Act in January 2003.
"This legislation would give vegetarians, food allergic consumers, and those who maintain special diets for health or religious reasons the information they need to ensure that the foods they eat are safe and in line with their diets ... Grassroots efforts will certainly help the fight to pass this bill for better food labels."
The bill states that H. R. 467 would "amend the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act to require that foods containing spices, flavoring, or coloring derived from meat, poultry or other animal products (including insects), or known allergens bear labeling stating that fact and their names."
H. R. 467, which is currently in referral in the House Subcommittee on Health, is cosponsored by Barbara Lee, (Calif.-9th district); Pete Stark (Calif.-13th district); George Miller (Calif.-7th district); Lynn Woolsey (Calif.-6th district); and eight other representatives including Ohio Congressman Dennis J. Kucinich. Kucinich, who is also a Democratic candidate for president, is a vegan who eschews all animal products, including dairy.
As encouraging as Lowey's bill seems, however, its passage is far from guaranteed.
Geeta Sikand, a registered dietician in Mission Viejo, Calif., and a fellow of the American Dietetic Association, says that the bill will have to be reintroduced in the 2004 session of Congress since no progress was made in 2003. "Legislation for labeling is introduced all the time, but that doesn't mean that it ever makes it through the House and/or Senate," she noted in an email.
Marion Nestle believes that H. R. 467 is not clear enough. "I can't say what Congress will do but my guess is that it will get bogged down in committee for lack of clarity," Nestle told India-West in an email.
"(H. R. 467) seems to be about two things "X protecting vegetarians from ingredients derived from animal foods, and protecting people with food allergies from ingredients that might cause reactions. The first is an issue of ethics rather than safety. The second is a safety issue, but a complicated one. Allergens are proteins. Most people with allergies are allergic to one or more of about 10 foods. A few people are allergic to other foods. I'm not clear about what's intended [by the bill]."
Creating an FDA-approved label with enough information to satisfy everybody is a major challenge, observes nutritionist Christina Stark of Cornell University. "It's a real balancing act to provide enough information to be helpful but not so much that it becomes useless, because no one wants to read it all," Stark told India-West.
A Voluntary Solution? : Vegetarians in the U.K. may have another solution that American food producers might want to adopt: a voluntary "vegetarian-friendly" labeling program which involves the food industry instead of the government.
Since 1969, the Vegetarian Society of the United Kingdom has issued its "seedling" logo, a blue and yellow label which states "Vegetarian Society Approved," on more than 2,000 English products including retail food and drinks, household goods, cosmetics and toiletries. The group claims that the seedling logo is the most widely recognized and trusted stamp of vegetarian approval anywhere in the world.
In order to display the logo, manufacturers must agree to the following guidelines:
* Products must be free from all meat, poultry, fish, shellfish and crustacea.
* Products must not contain slaughter by-products such as gelatin or animal fat.
* Any eggs used in the product must be free-range.
* Approval will only be granted to products or ingredients not tested on animals.
* Approval will not be given to genetically modified ingredients "as these are likely to have been tested on animals."
"The Society also requires that cross contamination does not occur between vegetarian and non-vegetarian products during food production," reads the Web site ( www.vegsoc.org ).
The seedling symbol is widely accepted and well-recognized by consumers: 96 percent of survey respondents said they believed that the Vegetarian Society's trademark on a product was the must trustworthy guarantee of vegetarian suitability. In addition, the group constantly updates its Web site with announcements of new products, as well as restaurants, hotels, health food stores and cafes, which earn the trademark.
"I support the adoption of a vegetarian-friendly label here in the United States," registered dietician Geeta Sikand told India-West. "I believe it would be good PR and corporate responsibility for any company that chooses to do so."
"Possibly a label could help "X it couldn't hurt," notes Terry Mayo, vice president of sales and marketing for Cedarlane, a line of vegetarian entrees whose offerings include "Veggie" Pepperoni Stuffed Focaccia, Grande Burrito with Chile Verde Sauce, and various wraps, enchiladas, burritos and pizzas.
The nation's leading producer of vegetarian organic frozen prepared meals, Amy's Kitchen, would also support a voluntary label. Speaking to India-West from the company's 100,000-square-foot facility in Santa Rosa, Calif., Amy's cofounder Andy Berliner said that he would "definitely support" a voluntary label. "It would make life easier" for vegetarian consumers like himself, he said. "I'm excited about this idea."
Andy and his wife, Rachel, founded the pioneering company in 1988 and named it after their daughter. Their first product was a vegetable pot pie designed as an alternative to Swanson's chicken pot pies. Since then, Amy's has enjoyed phenomenal growth sales now top $100 million per year and their products are consistently the top-selling vegetarian and organic entrees in the natural market space.
Interestingly, although both Amy's and Cedarlane's entire product lines are vegetarian, neither company aggressively markets its products as such. First of all, here in the United States, more consumers are looking for the word "organic" than "vegetarian," explained Mayo. Secondly, "There are all kinds of different interpretations of what "vegetarian' is," Mayo said. "If you push "vegetarian,' the vegans will start an uproar."
Although he supports the idea of a voluntary "veg-friendly" label, Andy Berliner believes its design and placement would demand careful consideration.
"More than 50 percent of [Amy's] customers are non-vegetarian," and are looking for organic products, said Berliner. "We don't emphasize that our products are vegetarian because some consumers assume that if it's vegetarian, it's not for them."
And even if industry leaders agreed to adopt a voluntary "vegetarian" label, who would issue it? The Vegetarian Society of the U.K. does not have an American chapter, but spokesman Chris Olivant told India-West in an email that the group has licensed the seedling symbol for use in Austria and other countries in Europe through local groups there. "There is no reason why it couldn't be so in America," he said.
The International Vegetarian Union issues what it calls a "V-label" in Europe but not in the United States.
The American Vegetarian Association claims to have had some success with its triangular logos for vegan and vegetarian products, but it charges producers and health professionals a fee to join and manufacturers $250 for the right to display their logo.
A spokesman for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the most visible vegetarian advocacy group in the United States, said the group deliberately does not issue a vegetarian label for foods. "For Peta, it's not about dogma," Bruce Friedrich, director of vegan outreach, told India-West. "We consider it of utmost importance to save the animals. To focus on infinitesimal ingredients misses a few key points. We have enormous respect for religious and dietary restrictions, but they tend to place personal purity ahead of saving animals. That hurts animals."
Earth Save, an organization founded in 1988 by one of America's most famous and influential vegetarians, bestselling author John Robbins ("Diet for a New America," "Food Revolution"), is enthusiastic about a labeling program. "We'd absolutely encourage a label," said EarthSave executive director Caryn Hartglass. "People have been talking about a label for a long time. We certainly need one. But it needs significant interest from the public." She invites India-West readers to contact the organization to show support for a labeling campaign (see sidebar).
Some grocery companies, such as Whole Foods Market and Wild Oats, the nation's number one and two natural foods supermarket chains, already label vegetarian and vegan items in their deli cases and in-store cafes but not on supermarket shelves. Both grocery chains offer a much wider selection of vegetarian fare than do their mainstream counterparts.
A few restaurant chains, such as the Fresh Choice and Sweet Tomatoes/Soup Plantation salad buffet restaurants, clearly mark vegetarian items in-house and on menus posted on their Web sites (both restaurant chains are popular with Indian American diners, too).
The Cheesecake Factory, ranked by the National Restaurant Association as America's number one restaurant chain in terms of sales per unit, offers no fewer than 16 vegetarian entrees on its menu, according to its Web site.
P. F. Chang's China Bistro, ranked at number two on the NRA's list, also offers a complete line of vegetarian entrees and appetizers, clearly marked on its Web site and menus. The Web site for Olive Garden, at number seven on the NRA's list, mentions several items as suitable for vegetarians, with a caveat (see separate list).
Until the FDA mandates a change in food labeling laws or manufacturers adopt a voluntary standardized vegetarian label, it's up to consumers to search out more information by themselves.
Supriya Kelkar, who says she has "severely reduced" her food choices since her experience earlier this year, has taken her concerns about hidden meat and meat flavorings to religious organizations such as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, The Federation of Jain Organizations in North America (Jaina), and the Seventh Day Adventists.
According to dietician Geeta Sikand, "The industry is consumer driven and in my opinion will respond to the consumers' needs. If consumers demand for a label that states, 'contains no meat products' or 'contains no animal products,' I believe the industry will respond. Vegetarians have a right to know what is in the food they eat."
She added: "Food companies typically label for the majority, not a small minority, but respond to minority concerns by having information available upon request, so strict vegetarians and vegans currently need to do some more due diligence on their part."
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