SNV Story No. 1: What does it take to create a standard? Respect and an open ear

Today’s consumers care about more than just the end product. They view the entire supply chain with a critical eye. Sustainability is becoming a more important factor. Vegetarian, vegan, ovo-lacto-vegetarian, ovo-vegetarian, lacto-vegetarian: the sheer variety of principles by which people consume is constantly becoming broader and more complex. Reading the labels at the supermarket is no longer seen as something eccentric, but an essential activity for many shoppers. The expectations for consistent, transparent and trustworthy communication are growing. Consumers look to vegetarian or vegan labels for guidance. It was about time to have a corresponding ISO standard.

Dominique Taeymans, food expert and convenor of the working group for the ISO standard 23662:2021 “Definitions and technical criteria for foods and food ingredients suitable for vegetarians or vegans and for labelling and claims”, gave us an insight into how the standard was created and why it is so important. This article marks the start of this year’s series, in which we aim to explain the complex world of standards.

Why was this standard created?
The definition of “vegetarian” and “vegan” has been laid down in law in Switzerland since 2018. But in the European Union and other countries, there is no such legal definition. At the global level, there is no reference on which everyone can agree. At the same time, the market is responding to growing demand and changing patterns of consumption with more and more substitute products in the shops. We already seeing labels like the “V-Label” of the European Vegetarian Union (EVU), for example. Alongside this, producers and retailers are getting creative with their own defined declarations. The purpose of an international standard is to set the technical criteria for food products and ingredients that are suitable for the specific target group. In July 2018, Nestlé submitted a standard project proposal to the SNV for an ISO standard.

Step one: approval and working group
At the start of the standard creation process, the SNV assesses the standard project proposal and, upon approval, transfers it to the corresponding ISO committee. In this case, the technical committee ISO/TC 34. The members of this committee decide whether to accept the proposal and assemble the working group. The SNV nominated the experienced food expert Dominique Taeymans as convenor of the working group. He describes his responsibility as follows: “As convener, it is my job to create the ideal conditions so that the working group can work constructively and effectively. My role also involves listening to all parties with an open mind and treating all opinions with respect.”

Step two: preparing the content
But how does the content of the standard come about? Does it start with a blank piece of paper? “The standard project proposal includes an initial draft of the standard. Our work proceeded on the basis of the proposal submitted by Nestlé”, explains Dominique Taeymans. The convener described his approach: “Rather than going through the standard sentence by sentence, I decided to structure the discussion around four main topics: animal testing, cross contamination and unintended presence of non-vegan/vegetarian ingredients, packaging materials and genetically modified organisms (GMO)”. The issue of animal testing in particular was the subject of intensive discussions. Today, new ingredients or additives require animal testing in order to gain approval. This represents a red line for vegans, which is why the standard aimed to ban animal testing. “As convener, it is my job to respect all opinions and try to find a consensus within the group. Standards cannot override the law. With this in mind, an absolute no does not help us in standardization work. Instead, we have to look for acceptable alternatives”, emphasises Taeymans.

Step three: from the proposal to the final draft
By the time the working group presents their final draft, the standard will have gone through countless consultations concerning the CD (committee draft) and two votes: the DIS (draft international standards) and the FDIS (final draft international standards). The members of the technical committee can submit comments on the draft at any time. It is the responsibility of the convener to make sure that these are all processed. “We received 69 comments for the DIS alone, about 30 pages worth”, adds Taeymans. The working group has to evaluate every single comment, and either accept or reject them with a corresponding justification. The SNV supports the working group from the very first meeting. Its job here is to make sure that the formal standardization process is followed. It must also document the proceedings correctly and maintain contact to the superior committee. Speaking of the committee, the national mirror committee for food products currently consists of 59 experts. This shows just how much interest in these topics has grown in Switzerland. “Only the IT sector has a larger committee”, explains Ruth Schneider, standards manager at the SNV. She was involved in the development of the ISO 23662:2021 standard right from the beginning and learned that food is a topic close to many people’s hearts. “This became clear in the discussion over controversial palm oil, for example. In and of itself, it is a plant-based product. However, due to the intensive deforestation involved in its production, and the subsequent loss of habitat for endangered orang-utans, several of the vegan representatives thought it unworthy of the vegan label”.

Step four: finalisation and publication
The technical committee adopts the FDIS and passes any potential editorial changes on to the convener. “The standard is always developed in English before being translated into the relevant languages. The choice of words therefore plays a big role. Whether a sentence uses ’shall’ or ’should’, for example, makes a difference. The technical committee takes note of these comments”, explains the convener. Once the form and content have been approved, the standard is published. It is made available to public and can be purchased in the SNV shop. The standard is reviewed at regular intervals and revised if necessary.

How does the standard improve everyday life?
The standard creates clarity at several different levels. For food producers, it makes it easier to hold suppliers to account when it comes to providing ingredients that are suitable for vegetarians or vegans. Having a common understanding also simplifies international trade. Last but not least, the standard gives consumers peace of mind when shopping. Dominique Taeymans is proud: “One of our successes is the fact that the EVU made changes to the V-Label based on the ISO standard. The only opportunity we missed was the chance to also determine rules for the new trend in plant-based food. But this aspect is now under consideration and is being discussed in a new working group. This shows that not only the food industry is developing constantly, but also the corresponding standards.”

Profile: ISO 23662:2021

Started: July 2018
Published: March 2021
Number of pages: 6
Initiator: Nestlé
Convenor: Dominique Taeymans
Applicability: International
Participating countries: Switzerland, Germany, France, United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Iran and (periodically) India
Technical committee: ISO/TC 34 Food products
Global trend: ISO Trend Report > Society > Consumption
Status: 60.60 published
Next review: 2026
Preview of ISO 23662

Dominique Taeymans

Dominique Taeymans is an experienced food expert, professor of chemical and food engineering at the Institut Meurice Chimie in Brussels, and owner of the consultancy firm FoodREG Consult. With over 30 years of experience, he has contributed to the development of various standards.

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