Meaningless "vegan.org" Certification?
Posted by BillyQ at 02/14/2012
Have you ever seen the heart-shaped logo with the "V" in the center on a product and wondered what exactly this symbol means? Well if you are vegan, you probably already know the answer - it's certified vegan by the Vegan Awareness Foundation/Vegan Action (VAF); the product has been approved 'vegan-friendly' so we can feel assured that it is a safe product from an ethical vegan point of view. But wait: did you ever ask yourself if it actually represents these high standards or are we just seeing what we want to see in this symbol? Here is something from the VAF website:
Consumer Certification FAQs
" 'Why do you charge money for the Certification?'
Licensing fees help fund the certification program, protect the legitimacy of the trademark, and assure that the certification program will be able to continue in the future. If we lost ownership of the trademark or if we were no longer able to certify companies, the trademark would have no value as companies could use it on whatever products they wanted, vegan or not."
So why would any company drop the VAF symbol?
Sol Cuisine said in correspondence with us that they dropped the VAF certification standard because of the following reasons:
* High cost for the vegan trademark symbol usage on their packaging
* Vegan Action is not a 3rd party verifier and anyone could pay for the symbol but not have to prove it.
Issues which Sol Cuisine did not mention were:
* After doing a little of my own rough number crunching of Sol Cuisine's 16 product lines, I came out with a rough estimate of Sol Cuisine's VAF fees: around $2,400 for the total turnovers with their 379+ Canadian retailers (listed on their website 2011). I would surmise that the Kosher & Halal certifications are at least this cost each.
* Then I also noticed that their product "Original Burger" alone decreased in size by 22% which - taking into account the new pricing - represents a 28% increase in cost to the consumer. So based on the increased revenue (around $42,000) from this single product, it more than covers all of the cost of certification, vegan or otherwise.
* They had no problem keeping the non-animal-friendly certifications of Kosher and Halal.
* They also had no problem with VAF's lack of 3rd party verifier for many years before, so why the change now?
To be fair to Sol Cuisine, Turtle Island Foods (i.e. Tofurky) has being ignoring any kind of vegan symbol for many years, just labeling their products "vegan" in an easy to see way, but also promoting non-vegan recipes (i.e. honey, yogurt, butter, cheese...)
Sol Cuisine calls itself a "vegan company" in their correspondence with us, but also promotes non-vegan recipes... but let's get back to their criticism about Vegan Awareness Foundation's lack of third party verification. Back in 2009, I discovered this same issue while trying to communicate with VAF on another topic. I gave up after I never received any responses to any of my emails on any topic. Now, it has come up again - this time a company (Sol Cuisine) citing exactly the same concern.
An exhaustive search of the internet comes up with nothing but outdated articles about VAF campaigns dating back at least a decade and ending in about 2007. I went as far as trying to contact probable charities which might be receiving funding from VAF based on VAF's posted links:
Farm Animal Rights Movement (USA) - no response
"I'm sorry, we cannot share that information due to our policy of donor confidentiality." Tammi McIlwain
Compassion Over Killing (logo looks the same as VAF's "Humane Outreach" but has no affiliation) COK.net
"...The link you sent for Vegan Action seems to refer to one of their campaigns -- Humane Outreach. I don't believe we are listed or promoted on their website. Hope that helps! Sincerely, Erica"
Vegan Outreach "VO is totally separate... Matt"
The only new thing being promoted is Vegan Action's new website VAveg.org "explore vegetarianism Virginia". The main problem with VAF's new VAveg.org website is that it now actively promotes consumption through its resources links. The VAF Executive Director is Krissi Vandenberg.
Her trademark/non-profit VAF has 230 companies listed with a possible $230,000 to $552,000/yearly-gross ($1000-$2400/company). Kristine Vandenberg is the registered DNS holder of both "vegan.org" and "vaveg.org", but under "Resources" of the VAveg.org website we find links to bed & breakfasts which serve meat, etc. (Barclay Cottage) and community shared/supported agriculture (CSA) farms which raise animals for meat (i.e. Amy's Garden..., Frog Bottom Farm, Trail's End Farm, etc...).
In a nutshell: even though I think some of Sol Cuisine's excuses are lame on most levels, the one about 3rd party certification is on the mark. So as far as VAF certification goes, it seems meaningless: I do not see any current active donations being handed out, I see no links to any sponsored causes (Feb. 14, 2012) and as Sol Cuisine points out, anyone can pay to have the Vegan Action (VAF) symbol, requiring only self-disclosure but no proof. There is no transparency from VAF - no annual reports like some charities might be required to produce to the public.
We have tried corresponding as consumers, making a few email inquiries back in 2009. Now (2011/2012) after roughly 3 months, sending emails from various accounts, and having even called long distance to leave a message on the VAF answering machine (phone/fax), the end result is always the same - NO RESPONSE. So why have a phone number or email address at all if one can not even make inquiries into the certification process or companies listed under VAF?
If I were a new vegan company looking for some way to market my products to the vegan community, I would make donations to whatever causes I felt strongly about and make links to those causes on my company's website and packages and then simply write out all product ingredients in explicit vegan-speak, with "Vegan" written on the package. Also very importantly, I would not promote non-vegan recipes or links on my website.
IMHO, wouldn't a real charity be more deserving of monetary support than an unresponsive non-profit trademarker that does not post any annual financial statements or respond to sincere inquiries and actively promotes meat consumption through their links?
I didn't realize VAF wasn't a third party verifier. That's good to know. A bigger criticism in my opinion is the fact that they charge so much since it could deter smaller companies from using the logo.
Nonetheless, I think the Vegan logo is a wonderful thing and its growing popularity can only help animals. I looked at their vegan.org website and, from what they say anyway, it sure seems to me that their heart is in the right place. Quoting directly from their site:
"Our motivation is working to end cruelty to animals..."
"We are working to end cruelty to animals by showing the non-vegan food industry that there is a market for vegan products. Once there are more vegan products available, more people will want to become vegan. As more people become vegan, ..."
"We do not allow sugar that is refined though bone char to carry the "Certified Vegan" label."
"As it stands now, most people think veganism is too hard, restrictive, and expensive. When more vegan food is available it will be easier to find cheaper vegan "substitutions" so people won't feel it is hard, restrictive, or expensive. Making veganism appeal to all is the only way veganism will grow and therefore cruelty to animals will lessen."
"One of the goals of Vegan Action is to create growth in the vegan marketplace and increase the availability of vegan products."
Seems pretty impressive to me.
p.s. BillyQ -I wonder if they took down the B&B links in response to your concerns? I checked their website under "resources" as u described and they aren't there anymore.