I was flipping through my Facebook newsfeed a few days ago and noticed that my friend Denise had posted a couple of emails to a small vegan group to which we both belong. They concerned Vegan Treats. Surely if you're reading this blog, you have heard of this vegan bakery in Bethlehem, PA? It's particularly well-known for selling its desserts wholesale to stores and vegan restaurants in neighbouring states. I made a pilgrimage to sample some of their cheesecake during a 2010 trip to Pennsylvania and, as recently as last month, I had a slice of their chocolate strawberry shortcake at the wonderful Vegetarian's Paradise 2 in New York City.
I was curious about the exchange between Denise and, at first, Konya herself, then store manager Joy Grant. Denise has agreed to let me share the messages here. This first one was sent by her via Facebook to the Vegan Treats page on September 3. When no response was received, she sent a copy of it by email on September 9:
I am hoping that Danielle will see this message.
My family and I have been vegan for around 8 years and visit your bakery fairly often. During one visit in the spring we noticed that you use Sprinkle King brand sprinkles. My daughter is a baker and stated that Sprinkle King is not vegan as they contain confectioner's glaze (with insect shellac). We also noted that there was a case of Chex brand cereal in the kitchen, and to my knowledge they contain non-vegan vitamin D.
We visited again the day of the Bethlehem Vegfest and saw the same brand of sprinkles there. I asked the woman behind the counter if the sprinkles are vegan. She assured me they were, and said she would double check with the manager in the back. She came back to again assure us that the sprinkles are vegan but she said she was not permitted to let us know the brand being used.
I am not sure what to do in this situation. I have always thought that a bakery run by an ethical vegan would use all vegan ingredients and that I would not have to doubt any product purchased there. This has caused me to wonder what other ingredients are not vegan at Vegan Treats. I have friends and acquaintances that frequent your bakery and I feel that I have to let them know of this situation, that I would be ethically in the wrong if I did not at least give them the information I have. I wanted to check with you first however.
I hope you can see this not as an attack or threat, but as a plea for more information. Please let me know your thoughts.
I also sent this via FaceBook last week and have not heard anything back.
Thank you for listening.
On September 9, Danielle Konya replied to her initial message, but via Facebook. Her response was the following:
Good afternoon, Denise!
Thank you very much for contacting us and for being a loyal fan of Vegan Treats! I would be happy to explain some of your concerns.
I have been vegan for over 20 years, and started my bakery as a means to support my activism. I can assure you, I hold the purity of my desserts to my own very high, personal standards.
We do utilize Chex brand cereal in our bakery. Although their source of Vitamin D can sometimes be controversial, I have chosen to stand in line with various guidebooks, and community members, including PETA.org, and to consider this cereal to be vegan.
I have also chosen to utilize a brand of sprinkles that does contain Confectioner's Glaze. Although this is a very controversial ingredient within the vegan community, I would prefer to be transparent with my customers, and allow them to make the choice for themselves. I would like to apologize for any confusion there may have been in regard to the permissibility of sharing brand names. I am always happy to share product information with customers, and want everyone who dines here to be comfortable in their choices.
The far-reaching, negative implications that living in our civilization has on animals is an incredibly sad and unfortunate fact of life. I wish as much as anyone else, that I could ensure my shoes, food packaging, office supplies, cotton t-shirts, etc. were 100% cruelty-free, but realistically, I can not. Instead, I have to make educated choices that have as great of a positive implication as possible.
Please, feel free to email myself, or my management team anytime. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org Utilizing email always gets a faster response than our facebook page, simply due to the fact that we are always logged in to our mail account.
Thank you again for being a customer, and for taking the time to message us,
OK, so do you see what happened there? Denise, a loyal customer, messages Vegan Treats because she and her daughter visited the Vegan Treats home store and noticed both non-vegan Sprinkle King brand sprinkles and a case of non-vegan Chex cereal. On August 23, a visit to the Bethlehem Vegfest left her finding Vegan Treats there and using the same non-vegan sprinkles. When she inquired about them later at the Vegan Treats store, she was told by an employee that they were vegan. The Vegan Treats employee even double-checked with someone else and then repeated to Denise that they were vegan -- but then refused to confirm their brand name? Now, if an employee pulled that sort of stunt at a regular old bakery or restaurant, a vegan's instant reaction might be to suspect that the employee was being less than honest, yes? But why would an employee at a vegan bakery seek to withhold ingredient information from a vegan customer? Unless, as Danielle Konya confirmed in her response to Denise, they were NOT vegan, after all.
An animal ingredient is an animal ingredient is an animal ingredient. Confectioner's glaze, is an animal ingredient. For those of you who don't know, it's the name candy manufacturers use to refer to shellac. According to the Vegetarian Resource Group, "Shellac is a coating or glaze derived from the hardened, resinous material secreted by the lac insect, much like honey from a bee" and "300,000 lac insects are killed for every kilogram (2.2 lbs.) of lac resin produced". Furthermore, "[a]pproximately 25% of all unrefined, harvested lac resin is composed of 'insect debris' and other impurities". You can read all about it here.
Konya takes about the "purity" of her ingredients and "transparency" with her customers -- wanting to let them "make the choice for themselves", but the truth is that she wasn't transparent and she didn't let them choose. Konya fed her customers ingredients with which she knew many of them (e.g. the actual ethical vegans) would take issue. Had Denise not noticed the sprinkles and the cereal, she would never have known. None of Vegan Treats' customers could have known. There was no transparency in any of this. And she most certainly didn't allow her customers to make any decision "for themselves". She made it for them. With regards to the Chex cereal, she wrote: "I have chosen to stand in line with various guidebooks, and community members, including PETA.org, and to consider this cereal to be vegan". That was her decision: not her customers'. Even though she knew that it would be problematic -- "controversial" to some of her customers. What she did manage to do, sadly, was to deceive her customers.
On September 12, Denise replied to Danielle, messaging her through Facebook:
Thank you very much for the thoughtful reply.
My concern is mainly the lack of transparency that I personally experienced when asking directly if the sprinkles were vegan. If someone were to go in today and ask that same question, what reply would they receive?
I hope you can understand my feelings. I feel betrayed, as I have always confidently bought your goods with the understanding that everything was vegan in your shop. I have never seen the information posted anywhere in the shop that the sprinkles were questionable. Will this information be made available so people can make an informed choice? I never felt the need to ask before as I had assumed that all ingredients would be vegan.
Thank you again,
Instead of a response from Danielle, Denise received one that same day from Joy Grant, denying there had been any deception in Vegan Treats' serving its customers animal ingredients and referring to Denise's questioning the use of an animal ingredient as her own personal (perhaps fussy?) choice:
Good afternoon Denise,
Thank you for emailing us! I'd like to introduce myself, my name is Joy Grant, I am a member of the management team here at Vegan Treats. Danielle is out of the country, but with her advisement and permission, I'd like to continue your conversation.
We were also concerned with the explanation our counter person provided. It is not the managent or owner's intention to hide anything from our customers. Our bakery is designed with an open concept, we enjoy providing visitors with a behind the scenes view of our kitchen.
We encourage everyone to make choices in their life that allow them to fall asleep at night knowing they did the best they could for the world. Some do more, some do less, but we hope all try. I sincerely appreciate your dedication to this compassionate lifestyle that we all share, and although you have chosen to avoid sprinkles containing confectioner's glaze, we are going to continue using them in our bakery. We respect your position wholeheartedly, and have decided that our use of sprinkles is a choice we can stand behind.
Moving forward, our staff know that it is imperative to be honest and straightforward with all of our customers. If they are ever confused, they are encouraged to pass along our email account, names, and various work hours, so that we may help everyone with confidence. We are also in the process of re-designing our website, which will include a page of FAQs, one regarding our sprinkles has already been drafted.
I hope I've helped answer your concerns. Please feel free to call or email me. I will be back in the bakery on Monday, and available for a phone call anytime between 9am and 3pm. I check my email account regularly, please do not hesitate to email me over the weekend if you prefer.
Joy Grant Vegan Treats Bakery
As a vegan, I am more than familiar with being deceived about animal ingredients. In my case, it was the first Xmas I spent in my hometown after having gone vegan. I was eating at my sister's. I had offered to bring a few dishes, but she'd refused, listing off a number of things I'd be able to have. I still brought a few things. My brother-in-law was doing most of the cooking and, at one point, I offered to help. He shooed me out of the kitchen and as I was walking out, I noticed him haul out a container of chicken bouillon powder and proceed to spoon some of it into first the boiling pot of baby carrots, then the wax beans. It was with his spoon hanging over the pot of wax beans that he saw me watching him and that he moved his body to hide the container from view.
At the table, I refused to eat anything except what I had brought, along with a plain baked potato. When pressed by my sister, I told her why. Both she and my brother-in-law sighed. He at first denied having done it and when I made it clear that I had seen him in action, he downplayed it, saying that it was just a small amount of "seasoning", that I was being picky, that I could rinse it off, etc. But in the end it wasn't the amount of bouillon powder that mattered. It was the deception. It ended up being the last time I ever ate at my sister's because even knowing my ethical stance, my brother-in-law took it upon himself to get me to eat something he realized I could very well have a serious issue eating -- something I would even refuse to eat. I felt that my trust had been betrayed and that my choices and stance had been disregarded and disrespected. That was what was unforgiveable. Mistakes happen, but being fed animal ingredients on purpose without my consent? I felt violated. Wouldn't you? Now, can you imagine something like this happening in another vegan's kitchen?
That's exactly how another vegan felt after hearing the news about Vegan Treats and reading Denise's exchange with them. On September 12, after having left queries on Vegan Treats' Facebook page and having had them deleted, Sabrina emailed them directly:
As a vegan and customer of Vegan Treats, I am unbelievably shocked and disappointed in your bakery. It was bad enough to learn that VEGAN Treats is using non-vegan ingredients, but then to have my FB posts deleted and to be blocked for asking simple questions is beyond all belief.
I have to tell you - this doesn't bode well for your business. The fact that this is how you handle your customer relations (deleting/blocking for polite questions) says a lot about your company, as does the fact that you advertise as a vegan establishment and are definitely NOT.
I know many vegans and will be getting the word out about your ingredients and unprofessional behavior. People have a right to know, as much as you want to suppress that knowledge.
Their response to her later that day was the following:
Thank you for emailing us, we would be happy to answer any questions you may have. Emailing, calling, or even stopping by in person is always the most effective means of reaching a member of the management team, rather than navigating through our 3rd-party monitored social media accounts. These outlets are, admittedly, used for basic promotional material, event information, topical "blurbs", etc. and aren't, admittedly, the best way to get a personalized answer to questions, order placements, shipping status questions, and the like.
I am sure you are referring to Vegan Treats' decision to utilize sprinkles that contain confectioner's glaze, and our use of Rice Chex Cereal in our gluten-free cheesecakes. We have chosen to utilize a brand of sprinkles that does contain Confectioner's Glaze. Although this is a very controversial ingredient within the vegan community, we would prefer to be transparent with my customers, and allow them to make the choice for themselves. Vegan Treats is always happy to share product information with customers, and want everyone who dines here to be comfortable in their choices. We do utilize Chex brand cereal in our bakery. Although their source of Vitamin D can sometimes be controversial, we have chosen to stand in line with various guidebooks, and community members, including PETA.org, and to consider this cereal to be vegan.
The far-reaching, negative implications that living in our civilization has on animals is an incredibly sad and unfortunate fact of life. We here at Vegan Treats, wish as much as anyone else, that we could ensure our shoes, food packaging, office supplies, cotton t-shirts, etc. were 100% cruelty-free, but realistically, we can not. Instead, we have to make educated choices that have as great of a positive impact as possible.
We hope that the vegan community can join together to recognize the importance of vegan businesses, and instead of fighting one another, we join together to discourage our friends, family members, neighbors, and strangers from patronizing "traditional" restaurants, bakeries, and grocery store aisles.
Please feel free to email anytime,
Vegan Treats Bakery
Basically, Joy admitted once again that Vegan Treats was fully aware that the sprinkles they were using contained confectioner's glaze (i.e. shellac, an animal product) and spoke of transparency and of claiming to want to give customers the choice whether to consume them or not. (Of course, as previously mentioned, that involves actually letting your customers know, in the first place, that you're feeding them animal products.) She used the old "you can't be 100% vegan because of the cruelty inherent in producing everything unavoidable in day-to-day life" argument to excuse away knowingly using cereal and sprinkles -- SPRINKLES! -- containing animal ingredients. And then, in what smacks of a subtle nose-thumbing gesture, she shamed Sabrina and accused her of not recognizing "the importance of vegan (sic) businesses" and choosing to purportedly fight with her fellow vegans rather than trying to discourage friends and family from shopping at "'traditional' restaurants, bakeries and grocery store aisles". In short: "Quit your whining. PETA says it's all good to serve you lanolin and ground up insects and their secretions. You should be supporting us instead of the other businesses who (also) serve their customers animal products."
Sabrina's reasonable response to this, sent later that same evening:
Joy, Confectioners glaze is not vegan; there is no controversy. I'm sure you'd be hard pressed to find a vegan who agreed that eating bugs was vegan. You do realize that confectioners glaze has bugs, right? The lac bug, to be exact. Also, you do realize there are alternatives, right? As far as Chex, Vitamin D3 is derived from sheep lanolin. I'm sorry, but how is this vegan? You realize that vegan means NO animal products, right? If you are so "transparent" then IMMEDIATELY stop deleting your customers' posts from your FB page, and let your customers know about your sprinkles and the Chex. I also don't appreciate the comment about "fighting" one another. Expecting a vegan bakery to have vegan products is not "fighting."And the final word from Vegan Treats?
Hello again, Sabrina,
Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts and knowledge with us. Under the owner's guidance, we have all been educated on Confectioner's Glaze, its production, and its contents. Although you may have decided not to consume anything containing confectioner's glaze, Vegan Treats is going to continue in its use of our current sprinkles, albeit with our eyes open to commercially-available, confectioner's glaze-free sprinkles.
The entire team at Vegan Treats is happy to answer any questions our customers may have, feel free to call or email us anytime.
Vegan Treats Bakery
Basically: "We know exactly that insect secretions and their ground up parts go into our sprinkles. Maybe you don't like that, but we're going to keep serving them. See ya!" On September 13, I decided to post information about what was happening on the My Face Is on Fire page on Facebook. I thought that Vegan Treats' vegan customers should be made aware of what was happening. A reader decided to contact them and received a message from them in which the company backtracked completely, proclaiming not only that they were, in fact, going to pull the sprinkles, but that they had apparently -- unlike what they'd told Denise and Sabrina -- had no clue that the sprinkles contained animal ingredients. An excerpt:
Since we received a concerned email from a loyal customer, the confectioner's glaze issue in our sprinkles has been our number one concern. Rest assured you have no worries when it comes to Vegan Treats; our goal is and will always be the protection of all living creatures. We go to great lengths to make sure all of our products are vegan, but sometimes we can be mislead by the companies that we are supporting.Now, the good news is that after enough expressed outrage, they finally paid attention and decided to stop using the sprinkles (no mention of the cereal). The weird news? That they would suddenly play innocent and suggest that they had been duped and had not known that the sprinkles contained insect ingredients. Another reader shared with me a similar messages he received from Vegan Treats that day, again vaguely suggesting that Vegan Treats had been misled into thinking that the sprinkles were free of animal products. They also mentioned "investigating" the non-vegan Chex cereal they were using. That same day, Danielle Konya ended up posting on the Vegan Treats Facebook page, describing Vegan Treats as "an ethical vegan company" and emphasizing her devotion and dedicated to other animals. It also stated the following:
Danielle has been an ethical vegan for over twenty years, and had rarely encountered the issue with confectioner's glaze. We seldom use the sprinkles and believed them to be 100% vegan. We were assured by the company when we researched them that they did not contain any insect byproducts. Vegan Treats has never meant to deceive or mislead our customers, and we try to be as transparent as possible. We appreciate your concerns because they are ours as well. We have already discontinued the use of the sprinkles and are reaching out to find an alternative.
Our distributor told us that the confectioners glaze in the sprinkles does not contain shellac. There’s some debate now if confectioners glaze can ever be vegan. Until we can find out with absolute certainty, we are taking a proactive step to discontinue the use of sprinkles in our products because of an inability to verify definitively the ingredients of confectioners glaze.The thing is that confectioner's glaze is shellac. And it doesn't take a PhD or a heap of super-human insight to suss out that had the folks at Vegan Treats actually believed that their confectioner's glaze (i.e. shellac) didn't contain shellac, they would not have presented it to Denise and Sabrina as a "controversial" ingredient and written all that they did about having been completely educated on its contents and on how we can't expect to be perfect vegans and 100% "cruelty-free" and that they were going to keep using it anyway, even if fussy vegans like Denise and Sabrina chose not to consume it.
Comments were left in response to asking for clarification and Danielle wrote at 3:26 pm on September 14: "We were told this glaze did not contain shellac, a product we wouldn't knowingly use." Denise's daughter, a hobby baker, knew from reading the ingredients on their packaging that the sprinkles contained confectioner's glaze (i.e. shellac) and in the letters to Denise and Sabrina, Danielle et al. admitted to knowing that the sprinkles contain confectioner's glaze -- and that they were going to use them anyway. Many vegans with whom I've spoken -- and even more who have left comments on the Vegan Treats Facebook page -- have agreed that it's one thing to make an honest mistake and to correct it, but that this entire situation has only been presented as an "honest mistake" in the desperate damage control done following the sharing of the initial exchange between Vegan Treats and Denise, in which Danielle Konya admitted to knowing what they were using and that she intended to keep using the non-vegan sprinkles.
And for those who may actually know the swept-under-the-carpet details about what transpired before the sprinkles were pulled, Konya had an article printed up in her local Lehigh Valley Live paper in which she managed to get HSUS' happy-animal-use-promoting Paul Shapiro to weigh in about nobody's being perfect and perfection being the enemy of the good (or the same old drivel used to prop up advocacy campaigns which stop short of unequivocally promoting veganism). And if anybody still wants to yammer about the possibility of her having deliberately fed her customers an insect-derived ingredient? Well, then Farm Sanctuary's Gene Baur also steps in to self-identify as a self-described "vegan" who occasionally consumes honey. The message is loud and clear: "Hey vegans? Quit your whining. Nobody's perfect and what's a little bit of bug juice, anyway? Now go eat one of Danielle's yummy eclairs!"
Perhaps popular welfarists Baur and Shapiro think there's nothing wrong with vegans knowingly consuming animal products, or with a supposed "ethical vegan" running what's described as "an ethical vegan business" purportedly accidentally feeding her customers animal products found in a common ingredient in the bakery world and widely known to be animal-derived. As I mentioned before, accidents can indeed happen. However, if you choose to water down your own definition of what it means to be vegan and you know that other vegans who may not have chosen to water down their own definitions of what it means to be vegan have placed their trust in you, you're burdened with this thing called "accountability" when it comes to your actions and when it comes to respecting their ethical decisions.
When your actions involve knowingly feeding your customers an animal-derived product you readily acknowledge could very well be deemed "controversial" at least (and repugnant and unacceptable at most), when you do so without full disclosure until someone outs you, when you do not cease doing so until there is enough outrage expressed? That's an entirely different story. And then when the damage control involves playing victim and sympathy-seeking and having others try to shame vegans for being concerned about having possibly been fed those animal ingredients in the first place? Instead of just admitting that you screwed up and knowingly fed your customers something you shouldn't have and promising to change, but instead you engage in a cover-up and the pros who have your back shame the vegans who were unequivocal about their choices? That, to me, is the deal-breaker. That's the "don't let the door hit you on your way out" unapologetically delivered by Vegan Treats to those who know what happened. And that's why I will never again knowingly purchase a product from Vegan Treats.
Please note: Any use of bold-type in the correspondence referenced above was by me.