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Interview with Plamil Foods managing director Adrian Ling

Interview with Plamil Foods managing director Adrian Ling

| by Editor | Posted in Vegan businesses

In this blog, Plamil Foods managing director Adrian Ling is interviewed by VegfestUK manager Tim Barford. Adrian chats to Tim about The Vegan Society’s vegan trademark, and a little about the vegan movement, eco-friendly packaging, as well as future plans for their well established vegan business.


The Vegan Society are voting on an amendment to their Trademark scheme this month – should the trademark be given to products that ‘may contain….’ ? For a long time you’ve been campaigning for this, you must be happy to hear that the Vegan Society may be changing. Tell us a little background.

I’ve been highlighting for over a decade that the Society’s trademark position is illogical and does not take advantage of all the benefits of universally known and used production assessment standards. The Society have ‘kicked the can’ down the road for many years but their position is showing cracks. This could have all been decided internally within the Society executive and trademark department which could have tweaked the standard and avoided adverse headlines as we have seen this year with Marks and Spencer. This indicates those in the Society continue to struggle to be in tune with the future of veganism.

There are an increasing number of vegans that are aware that the principals of the Vegan Society, ‘animal free’ are not reflected in their Vegan trademark standards.

A social media generation have become vegan with little exposure to the issue. Despite the fact that almost any social media posting on the subject is withdrawn by administrators on various platforms the illogic position on this subject, led by the Vegan Society is coming to be questioned by more and more people.

It appears that the current debate is centred on that of deliberately added ingredients, indicating that somehow ’may contain’ in such small quantities has nothing to do with veganism.

I do not agree. Decades ago deliberately added ingredients, may have been sufficient for a trademark standard.

However the choice is now between deliberately added and deliberately ignored, with the current trademark allowing ‘try but fail’. 

The problem is that the Vegan trademark is a self-certifying standard with no inspections.  A company head office may sign the agreement, with staff and production having little or no awareness of the requirement.

It is a complex issue but by taking advantage of ‘systems and processes’ already known to producers such as the allergen assessment process, the trademark could incorporate this into their standards ensuring all know what the standards are. Very simplistically, whilst being understood in most western countries the same standards would be understood by the largest producer and whilst not trademarked this effectively would even indicate to  a sandwich shop to clean a chopping board or change gloves when making a vegan sandwich after meat.

If the resolution is adopted, once again the UK Vegan Society would be at the international forefront in setting standards followed by all other trademarks and societies.

Reading even the 21st Society AGM, in 1965, the society highlights and encourages that a food should be labelled with all ingredients. Easy to forget that food labelling continuously evolves.

Whatever the outcome of the proposal it is clear the Vegan Society will have to change their standards if not now then later.


The FDA report in the USA in 2014 indicated high levels of contamination even in trademarked chocolate – why is that? It’s the ‘flushing process’, right?

The question itself highlights that quite rightly there is an interest ‘why?’ But this is a ‘false’ question in the context of ‘may contain’, in the sense that food production is highly complex, with producers required to make their own detailed assessment of all aspects to make a food such as ingredients, process, people, machinery etc. Too often I see people jump to conclusions of why a ‘may contain’ is on a food. The process of assessment is detailed involving those with real knowledge of all aspects within each company. If a product states ‘may contain’ it means that there is an assessment by the producer or seller that it is likely there can be a content of the ‘contaminant’. 

Effectively with contamination there has been no deliberate segregation somewhere and ‘care and control is lost’, in effect ‘as far as reasonably practical’ is not achieved, maybe due to cleaning, ingredient or many other reasons.


Why aren’t there more 100% vegan chocolate factories in the UK?

This all depends if you mean producing vegan chocolate, or chocolate that is allowed to be vegan trademarked!

But I think the UK is well represented with a number of vegan chocolates without ‘may contain’, more I think that in the EU!


Would you consider moving back to the VS trademark if their standards change for the better?

Plamil was the first company to use and promote the Vegan Society trademark. Many people that were involved with the start of this company were involved with the start of the Vegan Society, with ‘Plantmilk’ being a major driver of all those involved so we would be delighted to work more closely with the Society once again.

Leslie Cross (left) and Dr Hugh Franklin (right) with a beaker of plantmilk created from cabbage back in 1957


What part did your Dad Arthur play in the original Vegan Society development would you say?

My father became vegan in 1926, even before Donald Watson came up with the name. With just a handful of vegans in the UK each of them played a significant role in promoting veganism. Once again it is interesting to read AGM notes such as the 1965 publication, names involved I can identify and remember my father being in contact with on a continuous basis. Personally I can remember many of them, visiting Donal Watson at his garden, Eva Batts shop, going to the Garden parties. As I was born at home I am amused to see even my birthplace address in this publication!  On his death my family decided that on his grave the words ‘vegan pioneer’, I think he deserves that.


What do you think of some of these very new vegans claiming to be ‘pioneers’ and to have ‘started the vegan movement’? Is there a danger of ‘erasure of history’?

History is a strange thing. Pioneers can come in different shapes, sizes and different definitions. There are always different accounts of events and overwriting of any historical events. I have witnessed the same in the vegan movement with accounts of events a few decades ago that I attended being reported as factual but completely different to how I remember.

What is true is the handful of vegans there was at the start, in the 1940’s-1950’s and we should be proud that what they created has become so relevant in today’s society and wider world.


On a different note, where are we at with eco-friendly packaging? There’s a huge move away from single use plastic, but what are the alternatives?

Such a complex question.

At Plamil we have tended to get used to asking detailed questions from suppliers and we are on a big learning curve like everyone.

With looking at eco packaging it soon becomes apparent that:

  • Some eco packaging is being developed with animal ingredients
  • Packaging that is made to compost is not always produced very environmentally (eucalyptus packaging made by bathing in Sulphuric acid),
  • Compostable packaging shelf life can be limited to less than shelf life of the food it is wrapping. Consumers are not clear if packaging is industrial or domestically compostable, with few actually able or active in home compost and lack of segregation contaminating plastic recycling.
  • Packaging after breaking down can leave micro plastics, metals and ink in the soil.
  • Packaging needs to be measured holistically in all aspects from its own production, its actual use measured against alternatives, and after use.
  • Much of the issue we see in Blue Planet are created by the lack of care in disposal of plastic, in which we seem to forget that it is human action, lack of care and control that is dumping the plastic, plastic does not ‘jump into the sea’ by itself.

It remains a ‘grey subject’ with no clear and ideal solution in a consumer society but we do seem to be very keen to collectively forget why it’s in the sea in the first place.

Whilst we encourage the development of alternatives we have come to the conclusion that at the moment, ‘make - use - recycle’ is currently better than ‘make-use- return to soil’.


What’s in the pipeline for Plamil next?

I consider Plamil not just to be a brand, but a company that forges the way forwards, we are leaders not followers and not afraid to ‘swim against the tide’.

The outcome is that we push the boundaries, showing vegans remain at the forefront of new product development for all.

For chocolate we remain convinced that the future is not only ethical production but with less or no added sugar. All too often the favourite dairy free milky chocolate, like dairy chocolate, is quite sweet. So we are just launching our new dairy free milky chocolate with less than 4% sugar.

Our new bar tastes great and should be on shelves in the next few weeks, but already available at our web shop.


To find out more about Plamil Foods and So Free Chocolate, visit their website here.

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