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For many years, I've had to avoid Chinese restaurants and take-aways purely because they sell "vegetarian" choices which contain fish sauce, prawns, squid etc. I appreciate that there is a cultural difference such as Buddists eating oysters, but from the standpoint of an English vegetarian, I feel that it's not right that they can mislead in this way.

So my question is:

  1. Are there any laws or regulations which regulate "vegetarian" menu items?

  2. What constitutes a vegetarian menu item?

  3. What are the consequences of advertising or claiming a dish as vegetarian when in fact it contains a non-vegetarian ingredient?

Note: the original question did not specify a jurisdiction. The England and Wales tag has been added based on the question details. But answers on any jurisdiction are welcome until the original author clarifies his jurisdiction.

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    Hi and welcome to the site. If you want to know whether there is a law on whether fish can be used in meals that are advertised as "vegetarian", then you need to specify a country (or sub-national jurisdiction) since different places in the world have different laws. The question of whether there ought to be such a law is outside the scope of this site, so it would be better to edit out that aspect of your post. – Nate Eldredge Sep 30 at 21:02
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    I just noticed your mention of "English". If you are interested in the laws of England, you can add the england-and-wales tag to your question. – Nate Eldredge Sep 30 at 21:06
  • There is nothing opnion-based about this question, and it should nbot be closed on that ground. This is asking if there is or is not a law prohibiting dishes advertised or labelled as "vegetarian" but containing fish products. The only problem with the question is that it does not specify any jurisdiction. If closed as opinion-based i will vote to reopen. – David Siegel Sep 30 at 23:11
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    I disagree: it's asking if isn't it time to have a legal stance on whether Chinese food contains animals or not. – user6726 Sep 30 at 23:20
  • @user6726 and the answer to that question is there is such a law, however, without a jurisdiction we don't know whether the law says it is or isn't ok. – Dale M Oct 1 at 0:19
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UK and EU

There is is no legally binding definition of the terms "vegan" and "vegetarian" at EU or member state level. In 2019, the EU began work on legislation for those definitions.

However, under the UK's Food Information to Consumers (FIC) regulations (that implemented certain provisions of the EU directive of the same name), food information must be accurate, clear and easy to understand. This is intended to protect consumers from false or misleading labelling. The UK's Trade Descriptions Act also prohibits false or misleading labelling. The UK's Consumer Rights Act 2015 says "Every contract to supply goods by description is to be treated as including a term that the goods will match the description". And in the UK deliberate mislabelling is criminal fraud. I imagine other jurisdictions have similar laws.

In 2006 the UK's Food Standards Agency published vegetarian and vegan guidance for food labelling. Unfortunately I can no longer find it on the FSA's website (food.gov.uk). However, it had the following definitions:

Vegetarian

The term ‘vegetarian' should not be applied to foods that are, or are made from, or with, the aid of products derived from animals that have died, have been slaughtered, or animals that die as a result of being eaten.

'Animals' means farmed, wild or domestic animals, including for example, livestock poultry, game, fish, shellfish, crustacea, amphibians, tunicates, echinoderms, molluscs and insects.

Vegan

The term 'vegan' should not be applied to foods that are, or are made from, or with, the aid of animals or animal products (including products from living animals).

Now, those definitions weren't/aren't legally enforceable in themselves but an enforcement agency might use them as criteria when investigating a complaint.

Related: fish and molluscs are key allergens

Also under the FIC:

Food businesses include restaurants, cafés and takeaways, and businesses that produce, manufacture or pre-pack food.

Food businesses must tell you if they use any of the 14 key allergens as ingredients in the food and drink they provide. They must supply allergen information for every item that contains any of the 14 allergens.

The 14 allergens include fish and molluscs (e.g. mussels and oysters).

The consequences

  • You are free to ask the food business to list the ingredients (indeed this is the advice to people with allergies)
  • You are free to report your concerns to the food business (they really must list their uses of those key allergens)
  • You are free to not give your custom to the business
  • In the UK you can report businesses that you don't believe meet the legal requirements to the National Food Crime Unit. But if there is no direct intention to deceive or deliberate dishonesty it is not a 'food crime' and should not be reported to the NFCU. These non-crime concerns should be reported to the relevant local authority if you get no satisfaction from the business.
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The question does not specify a jurisdiction, so I choose to examine the matter for the state of Maryland, in the US. Even if that proves not to be the OP's preferred jurisdiction, this may be of use to others.

In Maryland, at least, including fish products in dishes labeled as "vegetarian" would quite probably be illegal. Specifically, it would be a deceptive trade practice. It might also be fraud.

Maryland commercial law, section 13-301 provides that:

Unfair, abusive, or deceptive trade practices include any:

  1. False, falsely disparaging, or misleading oral or written statement, visual description, or other representation of any kind which has the capacity, tendency, or effect of deceiving or misleading consumers;

  2. Representation that:

    2.i. Consumer goods, consumer realty, or consumer services have a sponsorship, approval, accessory, characteristic, ingredient, use, benefit, or quantity which they do not have; ...

    2.iv. Consumer goods, consumer realty, or consumer services are of a particular standard, quality, grade, style, or model which they are not; ...

  3. Failure to state a material fact if the failure deceives or tends to deceive;

...

  1. Deception, fraud, false pretense, false premise, misrepresentation, or knowing concealment, suppression, or omission of any material fact with the intent that a consumer rely on the same in connection with:

    9.i. The promotion or sale of any consumer goods, consumer realty, or consumer service;

Restaurant food, including take-out food, is pretty clearly consumer goods. Listing a dish as "vegetarian" would be a representation that might well be materiel to a particular customer. Doing so falsely would be deception. Failing to mention the presence of fish products would be "knowing concealment" and "Failure to state a material fact", and would have a tendency to mislead customers.

The US District court, intercepting this statute in THOMAS HIBDON, ET AL v. SAFEGUARD PROPERTIES, LLC., ET AL. (2015), wrote:

In other words, it is not ordinarily the one time (or even necessarily the repeated) occurrence of an act that suffices to constitute the statutory tort of “unfair trade practice.” These may all be isolated events. Rather, it is the “common” procedure, possibly “formally adopted,” “repeated or customary,” “the usual way” that, consistent with the Legg analysis, transforms the conventional tort into the statutory tort of “unfair trade practice.” (page 14 of the posted PDF decision)

Thus regularly describing as "vegetarian" dishes that are not would constitute a "practice" under this law.

In addition, such actions might constitute ordinary fraud. According to this article from a law office

In Maryland, to establish a claim of fraudulent misrepresentation, a plaintiff must prove: (1) that a false representation was made, (2) that its falsity was either known or that the representation was made with such reckless disregard to the truth as to be equivalent to actual knowledge of falsity, (3) that the representation was made for the purpose of defrauding the plaintiff, (4) that the plaintiff had the right to, and did, reasonably rely on the representation, and would not have acted had the misrepresentation not been made, and (5) that the plaintiff suffered damage directly resulting from the misrepresentation. See Swinson v. Lords Landing Village Condo., 360 Md. 462, 476, 758 A.2d 1008, 1016 (2000) (citing Gittings v. Von Dorn, 136 Md. 10, 15-16, 109 A. 553, 553-54 (1920); Martens Chevrolet v. Seney, 292 Md. 328, 333, 439 A.2d 534, 537 (1982))

It is at least possible that a knowingly false menu description of a dish would fit that definition. It is (1) false, (2) known to be false (3) intended to induce customers to buy, and (4) it is reasonable for a patron to rely on the restaurant's printed description of a dish. As to damages, that would depend on the specific facts.

This leaves uncertain whether "vegetarian", in Maryland, would be held to exclude fish or fish products. As mentioned in the comment by user Nij, in some cultures this is not so, and I could find no case clearly on point.

Merriam-Webster defines "vegetarian" (adjective, sense 2) as:

not containing meat : consisting wholly of vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts, and sometimes eggs or dairy products.

Cambridge gives sense B1 as:

not eating or including meat: The restaurant's very good for fish, but I'd give their vegetarian options a miss. (one example out of several)

the urban Dictionary gives:

Someone who does not eat meat. This includes fish and poultry, although some people claim to be 'modified vegetarians' and will eat these.

Collins dictionary gives:

Vegetarian food does not contain any meat or fish.

All these are ordinary dictionary definitions, not strictly legal definitions. But courts often turn to dictionary defs in stuatory construction. Indeed in THOMAS HIBDON, ET AL v. SAFEGUARD PROPERTIES, LLC., ET AL. (linked above) footnote 6 says:

A dictionary definition may provide a “useful starting point,” though not a dispositive answer, in determining a statute's meaning. See Blue v. Prince George’s Cnty., 434 Md. 681, 690 n.12 (2013).

If, in light of such definitions and other evidence that might be offered in an actual case, the reasonable expectation of the customer is that fish are excluded from "vegetarian", and the merchant knew or should have known that, the customer might prevail. This is not a final answer, but at least it indicates the applicable legal framework. A key question is, I think, whether the presence of fish is a "materiel fact". (And, of course, if fish were in fact present.)

If, as a comment suggests, a dish is labeled both "vegetarian" and "fish" or "shrimp" or some similar term, it would be far less reasonable for a patron to claim to have been misled.

There is also the question of a measure of damages. If the damage is only the price of an unwanted meal, it may well be too small for a suit to make economic suit, even in a small claims court. There might be cases where greater damages would be available.

  • Also very relevant is the question whether the dish is identified as containing e.g. "fish" or "shrimp". The claim "shrimp stir fry (vegetarian)" is not misleading, it is a clear indication of the intended meaning of "vegetarian". There is ample counter-evidence from usage that "vegetarian" can include fish because fish is not "meat". Then one would get into a cultural harangue. – user6726 Oct 1 at 17:40
  • @user6726 I have never seen a menu designation similar to "shrimp stir fry (vegetarian)". If I did see it, I would presume that it used a vegetable-based imitation shrimp or shrimp flavor, not actual shrimp. But if it mattered to me, I would ask for confirmation. I agree that such a designation is not misleading in the way that an item labeled "vegetarian stir fry" that uses a fish sauce would be. – David Siegel Oct 1 at 17:54

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