Vaad has new hechsher after companies use circled V for vegan foods

The Vaad Hoeir of St. Louis has adopted a new hechsher, or kosher certification symbol, after food companies have been using a circled “v” to indicate products are vegan. 

By Eric Berger, Staff Writer

The Vaad Hoeir of St. Louis has changed its kosher certification symbol to avoid confusion because food companies throughout the United States had started using it on their vegan products.

The Orthodox organization had used some version of a “V” surrounded by a circle since 1971, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. But in recent years, the Vaad, which is based on the Millstone Campus near Creve Coeur, had heard from an increasing number of consumers who had seen products such as plant-based vegan cheese at grocery stores with what looked like the Vaad’s kosher symbol. Many wondered whether the items were in fact kosher, said Yitzchak Kowalsky, senior rabbinical coordinator of the Vaad.

The new symbol features a circle of an O that blends with a V followed by a K.

The organization supervises the production of hundreds of food items, ensuring, for example, that pareve products (which contain neither dairy nor meat) are not processed on equipment used for dairy or meat items. 

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The fact that Vaad staff received more calls and emails — with photos of products — in recent years is likely connected to the increasing popularity of veganism and the growth in the number of vegan products. 

In 2014, only 1 percent of U.S. consumers claimed to be vegan, according to a report from the research firm GlobalData; in 2017, that number increased to 6 percent.

Kowalsky said he asked companies to discontinue using the Vaad symbol to indicate that the product is vegan and received varying responses. 

A container of a Go Veggie cream cheese alternative featured the Vaad-like symbol on the lid — even though the organization did not certify the product. Free2b Foods used the symbol on its mint cups. A bag of coconut chips from Dang Foods had it, too. 

Those companies did not respond to requests for comment.

After the Vaad contacted Go Veggie about its use of the symbol, the company agreed to stop using it, but it would take months for the company to cycle in a new round of products without the Vaad symbol, Kowalsky said. Vaad contacted Dang Foods a number of times and sent the company legal notices that it was violating a trademark, but management was not amenable to discontinuing use of the symbol, he said.

Rather than sue the companies, the Vaad instead opted to just change its symbol.

“Our responsibility is not to uphold trademark laws. Our responsibility is to provide kosher food, so we have to make sure we’re doing that,” Kowalsky said.

The Vaad wrote a letter to consumers about the symbol change in August, and it was posted on the St. Louis Jewish Cooks Facebook page on Sept. 12. 

The organization also plans to create a listing on its website of the companies that it certifies and those that it does not that may use the old Vaad symbol. And the Vaad has also notified companies under its supervision of the symbol change and expect “it to appear on packaging as soon as they are able to process new labels,” according to the letter.