Fish, eggs, and how to accomodate different definitions of “vegetarian” (Part one)

I’ve received quite a few queries via blog comments and email, asking my opinion on whether or not products containing fish or eggs should be labelled as vegetarian, and I thought the easiest way to respond was with a new post.

I think there are two separate questions here :

  1. What is the correct definition of the word “vegetarian”?
  2. How do we label things so that people know what they’re buying, no matter what definition they subscribe to?

In terms of what we’re trying to achieve with this petition, I believe the second question to be the more important one, but this post deals with the first question…

What is the correct definition of the word “vegetarian”?

I would define a vegetarian as someone who does not eat any animal products, with the exception of those which can be produced without killing any animals.

For this reason, I don’t think its correct to describe people who eat fish (but no meat) as vegetarian. The correct word is “pescetarian”. Fish are animals, and they have to be killed in order to be eaten, so pescetarians do not meet the definition of vegetarian given above. (I acknowledge however, that pescetarianism is a step in the right direction, and that many pescetarians give up meat for the same reasons as vegetarians.)

Furthermore, the UK Vegetarian society’s definition of “vegetarian” makes it clear that vegetarians do not eat fish :

The Vegetarian Society defines a vegetarian as: “Someone who lives on a diet of grains, pulses, nuts, seeds, vegetables and fruits with, or without, the use of dairy products and eggs. A vegetarian does not eat any meat, poultry, game, fish, shellfish or by-products of slaughter.”

They do, however, claim that a person can be vegetarian and eat eggs, though they only endorse products which contain free-range eggs.

The following definitions are taken from wikipedia :

  • Ovo vegetarianism includes eggs but not dairy products.
  • Lacto vegetarianism includes dairy products but not eggs.
  • Ovo-lacto vegetarianism (or lacto-ovo vegetarianism) includes animal/dairy products such as eggs, milk, and honey

For some, “vegetarian” means the same as “ovo-lacto vegetarian”, whereas for others it means “lacto vegetarian”.

For me, based on my definition, it comes down to whether or not eating eggs involves killing any animals. Some people would argue that eating eggs involves the killing of unborn chickens, but in fact, most eggs chickens lay are un-fertilised. As in other species, females get rid of unused eggs cyclically, and chickens accomplish this by laying them.

In a completely natural context (i.e. where chickens are not farmed and breed naturally), it would perhaps be difficult to tell which eggs are fertilised and which are not, so there would be a danger of killing unborn chickens. This might explain why vegetarianism as traditionally practised in cultures with a long history of vegetarianism, normally excludes eggs.

In the case of commercially produced eggs (i.e. all the ones in our supermarkets), there’s no danger of consuming fertilised eggs, as egg producers do not allow the chickens to breed, so its possible to eat eggs without killing any animals, and vegetarians buying these eggs would satisfy my (personal) definition of vegetarian.

Having said that, this distinction is all a bit theoretical, especially when you take into consideration the fact that even on free-range farms, male chicks are routinely slaughtered due to their inability to lay eggs :

On dairy farms, the situation is no better. Male calves are killed and sold for veal. Many vegans would put these facts forward as reasons not to eat either eggs or dairy, and there are similar arguments applying to honey.

Incidentally, fish eggs are different story. Taramasalata, for example, is not vegetarian because the fish have to be killed to “obtain” the eggs.

Gotta go to work now, but I’ll follow this up with a post dealing with the second question soon.


If you haven’t already, please…
Sign the petition on


A related campaign :

I’ve just been told about another campaign with a similar theme…

Jenny Elliott-Bennett’s Demanding Clearer Labelling campaign is pushing for legislation that will force companies testing on animals to label their products properly.

Like this one, Jenny’s campaign is centred around a petition with a target of 100,000 signatures, the required number to prompt a debate in the House of Commons!

Please support Jenny’s campaign and sign her petition!

Why food labelling needs to be improved

Although many UK supermarkets and restaurants are reasonably good at labelling vegetarian food as vegetarian, the situation still leaves a lot to be desired. I have started a petition to introduce a mandatory labelling scheme for the following reasons:

  • A product labelled "vegetarian" is (usually) vegetarian, but a product which is not labelled "vegetarian" may or may not be vegetarian, so people often have to resort to reading the ingredients.
  • Explicitly labelling non-vegetarian food as "non-vegetarian" would ensure that vegetarians don’t accidentally buy or consume products which are not suitable for them because of hidden ingredients (such as calf rennet in parmesan).
  • Products labelled "vegetarian" are occasionlly labelled incorrectly, due to a misunderstanding of what is and is not veggie. This is especially true of restaurant menus.
  • For vegans, the situation is much worse. When shopping for vegan products, you have to read the ingredients on almost everything.
  • When it comes to alcohol, there’s very often no way of knowing if something is vegetarian or not. A beer, for example, may or may not contain isinglass, but there’s no way of knowing without contacting the brewery.
  • Similary, medicines are often not labelled adequately.

The scheme I am proposing would resolve these issues by providing a clear definition of what is vegan and what is vegetarian, and by ensuring that all food, drink and medicine is labelled as follows:

  • Vegan products would always be labelled "vegan".
  • Products which are vegetarian but not vegan would be labelled "vegetarian".
  • Anything else would be labelled "non-vegetarian".

The petition has been published on and can be signed by UK residents and British citizens.

Sign the petition on