Are you discriminating against the veggie burger consumer?
According to the UK’s independent fact checking charity, fullfact.org, in 2016, the best estimate as to the number of adult vegans in Britain was 540,000. Within Europe, we are increasing our intake of vegetarian and vegan foods to the point that it has even sparked EU debate.
Following a vote in European Parliament on revisions to a food-labelling regulation, the Parliaments agriculture committee approved a ban on producers of vegetarian food using terms usually deployed to describe meet, such as veggie “burger” or Quorn “sausages”. French socialist MEP Eric Andrieu was quoted as stating the ban was “common sense” and perhaps as such, we will see only veggie “discs” or Quorn “tubes”.
With diets such as vegetarianism and veganism ever increasing, it was only a matter of time before the belief was tested by the Courts and Tribunals as to whether or not it is a belief afforded protection under the Equality Act 2010.
Under the Equality Act 2010, an employee of a particular “religion or belief” may be protected from discrimination, subject to legal tests.
Whilst you may be familiar with discrimination on religious grounds, discrimination on the grounds of philosophical beliefs can still be unlawful and result in hefty discrimination awards (see here).
In Conisbee v Crossley Farms Ltd, the Employment Tribunal were exercised with considering whether or not vegetarianism is capable of satisfying the requirement and definition of being a philosophical belief (protected characteristic) under the Equality Act 2010.
Mr Conisbee, a waiter, was shouted at in front of customers for wearing an un-ironed shirt and then resigned from his employment of only 5 months.
He later cited allegations of discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief contrary to the Equality Act 2010, in that his belief was vegetarianism (“the belief”). Mr Conisbee complained that his colleagues gave him snacks and later told him that they contained animal products, such as a croissant basted in duck fat and pistachio sponge pudding containing gelatine.
The legal test Mr Conisbee would need to satisfy for the belief to be protected would be that:
- The belief must be genuinely held, not a mere opinion or viewpoint on the present state of information available;
- The belief must be a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour;
- The belief must attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance and be worth of respect in democratic society; and
- The belief must be compatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.
Both Mr Conisbee and Crossley Farms put forward compelling arguments and although Mr Conisbee’s belief was found to be “genuinely held” and “worthy of respect in democratic society”, it failed at the following hurdles:
- It did not demonstrate that it concerned a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour, as vegetarianism is not about human life and behaviour, it is a lifestyle choice and it is Mr Conisbee’s view believing that the world would be better if animals were not killed for food.
- It did not attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance as the reason for being vegetarian differs greatly, for example, lifestyle, personal taste, health, environmental concerns, etc.
- It did not have a similar status or cogency to religious beliefs.
Mr Conisbee therefore was not discriminated against contrary to the Equality Act 2010, as his belief in vegetarianism was found not to be protected.
However, it is important to note that this decision is not binding on other Tribunals and in his reasoning, Judge Postle hinted that vegans could qualify for protection as there was a “clear cogency and cohesion in vegan belief” perhaps as they allegedly shun meat, fish and diary products because they believe it is “contrary to a civilised society and against climate control”.
Employers should exercise caution when it comes to any decision that could be detrimental to an employee due to a particular belief. Our Employment law specialists are available to ensure you and your business are protected.
If you have any concerns or would like advice on this topic or any employment law matter, please call in our 24-hour client advice line: 0330 100 8704 and quote your Client Account Number on all correspondence and telephone calls.