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039 - Why is Cadbury Bournville now not vegan? The dangers of 'accidentally vegan' products

What’s going on at Cadbury? Chocolate giant Cadbury recently caused an uproar amongst vegans when they updated the ingredients list on their ‘Bournville Giant Chocolate Buttons’ to include milk. We’ve seen a number of companies change their recipes and make an ‘accidentally vegan’ product no longer vegan, but the mystery here is that Cadbury says they haven’t changed the actual recipe of the product – the milk has always been there due to heavy cross-contamination from the other products they make.

So what’s actually going on at Cadbury? What made them now decide to disclose the milk in their Bournville range and what does this mean for other ‘accidentally vegan’ products? David takes a look at what we can learn from this and why food transparency, and creating ‘inclusive’ products that everyone can have (no matter what their dietary preferences and allergies) is good for vegan businesses.

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Full episode transcript

Hello and welcome to episode thirty-nine of The Vegan Business Tribe Podcast with myself David Pannell, co-founder of Vegan Business Tribe.  And if you have a vegan business, or are thinking of starting one, then Vegan Business Tribe is here to support and inspire you not just to build a vegan business, but to build a SUCCESSFUL vegan business.
And can you believe we’re nearly at episode 40?  I need some of your ideas of what to do when we hit our 50th episode  – should we have a podcast party, should we turn the podcast over to our Vegan Business Tribe members to host instead? If you have any ideas please do email me or send me a message.  Because we have built this community around our members, by engaging with you, by helping you and learning what problems you have and how we can help you build a more successful vegan business.  And if you are not part of Vegan Busines Tribe yet – so if you only listen to this podcast and you’re not actually part of our community, if you’re not coming to our networking meet-ups and you’re not seeing all the content, events and courses on the website – you really are missing out on 90% of everything that Vegan Business Tribe is.  The reason we can keeping putting out this podcast every week is because we are supported by hundreds of Vegan Business Tribe members in our absolutely amazing community of vegan business owners and professionals.  People just like you who help Lisa and myself, not just champion the Vegan Business Scene, but actively work to skill-up vegan business also.   So if you want to support the work we’re doing then I would love you to head over to and sign up as a member, and part of our active community for just £12.99 a month. Now, as I keep pointing out, THAT’s the equivalent of buying just a single cup of coffee a week from your local coffee shop and you get so much more than a cup of mediocre coffee in return.  And it doesn’t matter where you are in the world – although we’re based in the UK and have a lot of UK members, we also have members in Canada, South America, the States, Europe, Africa, Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand and everywhere in between.  I like to say we’re all bound together by our vegan ethics, not our geography.
And before we start, with something of a chocolatey episode this week, again I just wanted to give a shout out to the Vegan Business Tribe ‘Slack possie’ – and if you’ve never heard of Slack then that’s going to sound like a really weird sentence to you, but Slack is the discussion app we use to keep in touch with all our Vegan Business Tribe members.  It’s not like being part of an annoying WhatsApp group or a Facebook group, it’s more like a forum that you can use on your phone or desktop that all our Vegan Business Tribe members get access to support each other, and also to chat with myself and Lisa.  And recently in our Slack channel we’ve been sharing details of a lot of grants that are open to vegan businesses at the moment, we’ve been having conversations about what investors are looking for in a pitch deck, and also a lot of members have been using the group for brainstorming ideas and getting feedback from other vegan business owners.  One member has even used it to promote a new vegan book club, and I’m looking at you Victoria from Happy Carrot Skincare. 
It’s also where I get a lot of ideas for this podcast, seeing what people are talking about and what questions keep coming up. So, if you’re part of the Slack group already then a big shout-out to you all for making my phone ping all the time with your responses and questions, and if you’re not then just sign up to Vegan Business Tribe over on the website and we’ll send you an invite to join.
So, if you’re a member of one of the many vegan Facebook groups here in the UK, you will have probably seen the absolute outrage last week as chocolate giant Cadbury revealed that its Bournville Giant Chocolate Buttons are no longer vegan.  I say revealed, but it was first spotted by eagle-eyed vegans that the supermarket online listings for the product now had milk listed in the ingredients.  And you might not be familiar with Cadbury Bournville as a brand, but it’s their dark chocolate range that many new vegans perform backflips over when they realise that it’s accidentally vegan – a bit when you realise that Oreo biscuits are vegan, even though they confusingly seem to have an illustration of milk on the front of the pack.
And you have to understand how much a cult vegan icon, especially here in the UK, Cadbury Bournville is.  They make Bournville giant chocolate buttons, Bournville rum and raisin bars, chocolate orange bars…  And if you went vegan for your health, then I’m sorry to break it to you that you can even get Bournville chocolate fingers!  Now, you would ask yourself: when you have such a huge following of people buying your one product line that doesn’t contain milk, and you have OTHER products that DO contain milk and cater for that market, then why would you take such a backwards step of adding in milk to the recipe?  And you do get companies doing things like that all the time.  Flora, who are known for their plant-based margarine products as an alternative to butter, started adding buttermilk to their main range, because, they said, of customer feedback.  Well, I don’t think they were ready for the tsunami of customer feedback that came from angry vegans once the change became known, again largely through the vegan Facebook groups.  And it was missed by many because the packaging change was very subtle, meaning that consumers were accidentally picking up the product not realising it now had milk in it and they had to look out for the separate non-milk version.  What a great way to lose the trust of a dedicated and evangelical customer base, not just of vegans, but people who are lactose intolerant, or don’t identify as vegan but like to avoid dairy products.
So what’s going on at Cadbury Bournville? Why would they take a popular product with such a dedicated following and add in an ingredient without even making an attempt to let the public know? Just quietly slip it into the ingredients list?  Well, it’s that last point I made about people with allergens.  Because, when we reached out to Cadbury to ask about the reason for changing the recipe for Bournville Chocolate Buttons, the reply came back that – actually – they haven’t.  So, how can you have a product with no non-vegan ingredients one day, you don’t change the recipe, but the next day you’ve got milk listed in the ingredients list?  Well, the product already had the ‘may contain…’ disclaimer at the end of the ingredients, you know may contain milk, packaged in an environment that also handles nuts etc etc, but it turns out that this MAY contain is actually a DOES contain.  Not because they add in milk when making the product, but just from cross-contamination from everything else they made in their factories.  There wasn’t a CHANCE that the product contained milk, it DID contain milk because it was made on the same equipment as their other lines.
So the milk, it’s always been there.  Even though it wasn’t listed in the ingredients.  Even though they are not actively adding milk to the product as part of the recipe, it’s in the product when it leaves the factory.  And this is something we lose sight of when we get excited and embrace certain products as vegan consumers.  A few episodes back we took a look at what was happening at Oatly, how a company that was being championed by vegans worldwide one day was being boycotted the next because of some of the ethical decisions they were making in the business.  But Oatly isn’t a vegan company, they just happen to make a product that is really popular with vegans – it wasn’t founded on vegan values.  So when we hold these companies to account against our own vegan standards, they are always going to fall short.  And the same is true of Cadbury.  Cadbury always famously claimed that a glass and a half of milk went into each of their Dairy Milk bars – that’s about 400ml of milk and they sell about a million bars a day globally.  That’s four hundred thousand litres of milk a day Cadbury use in just that one product. So, are you shocked when a company contributing this much to the dairy industry, that’s funding milk production on a huge industrial scale, make what seems to be a non-vegan decision?  You shouldn’t be, and if you are holding them to the same vegan standards, just like Oatly, just like Flora Margarine, then you’re always going to be in for a let-down.
But this isn’t the full story of what’s actually going on.  Of course, Cadbury would love to continue picking up the vegan customers with no extra effort.  They would prefer that when consumers’ buying habits changed, that instead of losing those customers they instead moved from one of their products to another. And consumers would still love to have the familiar Cadbury chocolate taste that they have grown up with.  But the law around allergens in food is really starting to get more serious – and milk is a huge allergen to many people.  Because, we’re not supposed to have cow milk.  In fact, you’re not supposed to have milk at all past infancy – it’s the food equivalent of still wearing a nappy or a diaper when you’re 30.  That’s why Oatly decided to make Oat milk, after research in the 1990s showed that the majority of the world’s population was, in some form, lactose intolerant.  That’s why (here in the UK at least) some ingredients that people are allergic to have to be listed in bold to make them easy to spot – which is also a real help for vegans trying to spot if a product has milk or egg in it.  And these laws are starting to toughen up.  It doesn’t matter if you don’t actively add something like milk as an ingredient, if a product comes out of your factory every single time with milk in it, then you need to let people know.  A ‘may contain…’ doesn’t really cut it.  And that seems to have been the case with Cadbury Bournville – now, this is still a fairly recent story so more facts may come to light, they may even reverse the action after the public backlash, even though I doubt it – but from the responses I’ve seen from Cadbury, it seems like even though they didn’t list milk as an ingredient on the packet, it’s always been there in the product.
For vegans, that’s distressing; but for people with a milk allergen, that could be deadly.
So, this is all very interesting – but this is the Vegan BUSINESS Tribe Podcast, not the vegan chocolate lovers podcast – although if I’m being honest that’s one we’re probably qualified to launch – so why did I want to talk about this today, what can we learn as businesses from what’s been going on at Cadbury?
Well, the first thing I always think when I see these stories is what advice myself and Lisa would give Cadbury if we were consulting with them.  And it’s a fairly clear course of action: you launch the vegan version.  They already have the recipe, they already have the distribution, they know they will get away with charging a premium for a while after launch and that (at the moment) indulgent vegan product launches by brands such as Nestle and Mars still make huge ripples.  Take a look at the Vegan Kit Kat, the Vegan Galaxy Bar, the Vegan Magnum.  And I know that Cadbury has had their R&D department working on vegan chocolate for three years at least now, so that might well be the plan.  But they already have a product that they know customers love, so move production to a vegan factory that doesn’t handle dairy, or lease someone else’s, or at the very least set up a separate line that doesn’t use shared equipment, and you’ve got a quick entry to market for a vegan product that you know will make the news.  But as vegans, we also WANT this to be a problem for companies like Cadbury.  I was in a session a couple of years ago with the head of R&D at Quorn, and he said that for a vegetarian business they were very uncomfortable about the amount of animal-derived ingredients in their products, namely egg.  And they have spent millions of pounds and many years trying to find a replacement for egg whites that got the same test-taste results with their customer focus groups.  In that time however, other companies have started out with new meat-replacement products that never had animal ingredients in them in the first place, were acceptable and suitable to everyone, and Quorn have found themselves late to the vegan marketplace.  And Quorn should have been leading it.  They have been producing meat replacement products since the 80s, but those meat replacement products were always reliant on egg whites and they are now struggling to catch-up.
And this idea of inclusivity is going to be something we’re going to see more of as the vegan market matures. Why produce several versions of a product when you can produce one product that everyone will consume?  Why produce a vegan KitKat bar and a non-vegan KitKat bar if the one without animal products taste just as great and you can move the population onto that one.  We’ve seen this with brands like Gu Puds – they released their new cheesecakes onto supermarket shelves that were vegan, gluten-free, lactose-free and everything else-free – a single product that can be enjoyed by everyone in the family and a non-vegan wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.
Heather Landex is the author of the book, Inclusive is the new Exclusive – how the food service industry can stop leaving money on the table, and in her book she introduces the concept of the ‘lowest common denominator’.  When people are looking for a place to eat out, it’s the person with the food allergy or the dietary preference that dictates where the group eats. So if you have a group of five people, and one person is vegan – then the group goes to a place that caters really well for vegans even though only one out of 5 is vegan.  And if you work in the food service industry, then I would really advise picking up a copy of Heather Landex’s landmark book about how you can often cover all the bases and have allergen-free, animal-free, dietary-preference-friendly food options as the majority of the food you serve.  And if you mainly cater for that term, ‘a typical eater’, then you are actually missing a huge part of your audience.  As Heather puts it, inclusive really is the new exclusive!
And the same can apply to businesses making products, not just restaurants and the food service industry.  Why have vegan wines and non-vegan wines when most consumers wouldn’t be able to tell the difference, and if the majority of your customers knew you filtered your wine through fish bladders probably wouldn’t touch it ever again?  We know that 50% of the UK population report that they have some form of vegan buying behaviour without identifying as vegan.  This IS mostly in the food they eat, so they might have meat-free days or have switched to plant milk instead of cow milk.  But they are also choosing cosmetics that are cruelty-free, because ironically they are not OK with animals being tested on, even though they are seemingly fine with them being killed to eat.  Hey, we’ve all had to face our own hypocrisies when we turned vegan so I’m not one to judge.  Or people are turning away from animal products in clothing – and again, let’s not talk about people petitioning Canada Goose to remove fur from their products whilst wearing leather shoes.  I’m in danger of going a bit ‘preachy vegan’ now aren’t I?!
But all these companies have learnt that if they can bring out a product that covers all the bases, that is suitable to everyone – no matter what your dietary preferences, no matter what your religious beliefs, no matter what your ethics and allergies – then they can sell to a huge market.  Because the key to having a mass-market business is having one that can capture multiple niches.  And like Oatly, even if the company wasn’t set up on vegan ethics, they can still build up a loyal following in each of those niches.  But, for those products that have, up until now, been what we call ‘accidentally vegan’, Cadbury’s move to start listing milk as an ingredient in their Bournville Chocolate Buttons – an icon of accidentally vegan products – highlights a problem these companies have with not fully engaging with this marketplace.  We are seeing more and more companies setting up separate vegan factories.  Take a look at MooFree chocolate.  They have a vegan chocolate factory that sends zero waste to landfill, and if you are a chocolate manufacturer you can have your vegan product made there by MooFree with no chance of any cross-contamination.  And as the laws tighten on labelling allergens, I suspect we will see more ‘accidentally vegan’ products also turn out not to be.
And one of those big laws, which again I first heard about from Heather Landex when we spoke about her book, is the PPDS law, or the ‘prepacked for direct sale’ law, more commonly known as Natasha’s law.  Which is due to come in from the 1st October 2021 in the UK.  This new law means any food you make and serve on your premises, such as in a cafe, or if you are a take-away, also has to be labelled with a full ingredients list with any allergens emphasised in that list.  And this new transparency will be a great thing for vegan consumers – no more will we be asked to believe that your lovely cakes are vegan, you also have to actually prove it to us too – but it also gives an extra level of security for people with allergies.  The reason it’s called Natasha’s Law is because of the tragic death of teenager Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, who suffered a fatal reaction after eating a baguette bought from a very high-profile sandwich shop that didn’t list sesame seeds as an ingredient even though they were present.
But it’s also why we’ll see more and more companies turn to schemes like the Vegan Society’s Vegan Trademark, which as well as making sure they are no animal ingredients in the recipe, also requires companies to manage the chance of cross-contamination.  The more products we find actually had milk or other animal products in them all along because they are made on the same machines as non-vegan products (to the point where they have to list it as an ingredient) the more companies and brands will come under pressure to prove their accidentally vegan products are actually vegan.  On social media, we’re already seeing people ask that question.  If Cadbury Bournville products has milk in it, what about Oreos, what about Fry’s chocolate, what about Lotus Biscoff and many brands of bourbon biscuits?  If instead I buy these products from a vegan company that only makes their products in vegan factories, then the chance of finding out afterwards that they were not ‘actually vegan’ is seriously reduced.
So let’s just wrap up by coming back to the original question to make sure I’ve had a go at answering it, about what’s actually going on with Cadbury Bournville Giant Chocolate Buttons, and why are they not vegan anymore?  And the simple answer is that they never were, truly, in the first place, nor did they ever really claim to be.  They are not the first company to have things in their product that were not listed in their ingredients, and they won’t be the last.  They were not technically breaking any laws, it wasn’t an active ingredient, but nor were they making any claims to be vegan either.  This is why, to them, it’s a purely technical matter.  It’s a simple roll-out of an updated ingredient list like they do several times a year.  No need to either shout about it, put a flash on the packaging saying ‘now with extra milk!’ or to update people about it. To them, nothing has changed, it’s just business as usual and that’s been represented in the tone of the replies they have sent customers.  And I suspect that the negative backlash they have got has also taken them by surprise.  Another of our Vegan Business Tribe members, Coral McCloud from Rebel Mumma is a branding and design consultant, and she started a campaign highlighting to brands how their packaging of vegan and non-vegan versions of their product is really confusing to consumers. Such as Quorn’s vegetarian ham slices and their vegan ham-free slices being sold in almost identical packs, or Helmann’s organic mayo and vegan mayo being very easy to get mixed up if you are on a busy shopping trip with your toddler, as Coral was when she accidentally bought both these products instead of the vegan version – and she’s a design expert!
So, although it sometimes feels like we’re living in a golden age as vegan consumers, and in many ways we really are, these kinds of stories still highlight how far brands have to go in understanding the consumer and the marketplace.  And that’s where you CAN step in as a vegan business.  I always say the way to take on the big brands entering the marketplace is with your unique vegan ethics. Unlike Cadbury, your customers know that YOUR product is not going to leave the factory having picked up enough milk on its way through to have to list it as an active ingredient on your packaging.
OK, so let’s just run over a couple of takeaway points about what we can learn from Cadbury Bournville Giant Chocolate Buttons, that mainstay of accidentally vegan products, turning out actually to not be:
  1. Don’t be surprised when non-vegan companies make non-vegan decisions. And recognise that this is how YOU can actually connect with your customers better, you share the same ethics as your customers and you can use that.
  2. These companies who are trying to make vegan versions of the products they already have are actually at a disadvantage.  People like Quorn, who should be at the forefront of vegan meat-replacement products, are actually playing catch-up with companies who did not have to convince their current customers that the vegan version was just as good.
  3. Inclusivity is important.  If you can make a product that is suitable for everyone, no matter what their dietary preference or allergies, then you have a single product that you can sell to everyone. Mass market businesses cover many different niches. Take a leaf out of Heather Landex’s book – Inclusive is the new Exclusive!
  4. If you do run a business where you make and sell food on your own premises, then there are new laws coming in that means you have to be a lot clearer in your labelling and making it clear what allergens are present. And we’re going to see food transparency becoming more prevalent, and I suspect that actually, a lot of the next moves we will see will be to highlight how healthy or sustainable the food is.
  5. Companies do hear when consumers make a noise.  Their customer service department getting flooded when they take a step like Cadbury took on this product is how they learn.  And again when this happens you can use this to highlight that as a vegan business, customers don’t have to worry about YOUR product being vegan, or getting your vegan and non-vegan products mixed up.
And that’s it. And I just want to finish off by asking you for two small favours before you hit the stop button.  First, if you love what we do, so if you’re currently binging our podcasts but you haven’t yet engaged with us and the Vegan Business Tribe community directly, then we would love to see you over on The Vegan Business Tribe website.  As I said, it’s only £12.99 a month, we keep the membership as low as we can so we can help as many vegan businesses as we can – but it means that you’re also allowing us to keep producing this podcast, all our weekly content, our courses and our regular online events and meet-ups.  And if you think you’re just not ready yet, so maybe you’ve just got an idea and haven’t launched yet, then you will be far more successful if you surround yourself with other people on the same journey now to learn about how they launched.  And all our new members also get a 30 minute 1-2-1 with myself and Lisa so that we can also learn about your business and see how we can support you.
And then the second favour I want to ask, if you find this podcast useful then I would love if you can first make sure you’re subscribed to this podcast, then if your platform allows you – so if you’re listening on iTunes especially – if you can also leave us a 5-star review.  Because this really helps us start to get noticed by the algorithms and to get the platforms to start recommending us to more people.
So, thank you for your time, I always appreciate you giving up your time to listen, it really means a lot to us, and I will see you on the next one!

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