Schools are being advised to adapt their lunch menus to avoid potential legal disputes after ethical veganism was branded a "philosophical belief" in a landmark tribunal ruling.
A prominent pro-vegan campaigner has warned that it would be "very wise" for school caterers to make adjustments in line with the ruling, which puts ethical veganism in the same bracket as religious belief, sexual orientation and all other "protected characteristics" under the Equality Act 2010.
This means that schools, like employers, will not be allowed to discriminate against pupils on the basis that they are ethical vegans.
An ethical vegan is somebody who applies the vegan philosophy to all aspects of their life; so they are against the use of animals, or animal products, for any purpose.
Philip Mansbridge, executive director of food awareness organisation ProVeg UK, said the ruling means any school refusing to cater to ethical vegans could face litigation.
"I think this does actually change things for schools," he said. "Right now people don’t have to provide a vegan meal for a vegan child in a school, because they can say, ‘Well, actually it’s their choice.'
"You wouldn’t be able to do that if you have a religious student who only ate Kosher food. Everybody would be like: ‘You can’t say that because it is not their choice – it is their whole fundamental world they live in.' This has now put ethical veganism into that bracket.
Vegan food in schools
"I would certainly say schools and school caterers should look at this...and adapt accordingly. It does give the opportunity for people to better defend their belief systems against the school or school caterer who has chosen in the past to not give them the choice."
The new case law was established during a legal dispute involving vegan Jordi Casamitjana, who claims he was wrongfully dismissed by the League Against Cruel Sports on account of his philosophical beliefs.
Case law is a collection of past legal decisions used to determine how new cases should be decided; so, while no new legislation has been created, this ruling is likely to inform future disputes where ethical veganism is concerned.
Mr Mansbridge explained: "The first stage [of the case] was to establish whether ethical veganism was a philosophical belief. The judged ruled that it meets all the criteria for a philosophical belief.
"It should get legal protection. Where that legal protection would come in would be the Equality Act. The Equality Act is all about protecting people from discrimination in places of work, but in education as well.
"This is only case law; no laws have been changed because of this. It doesn’t have to be followed. Case law gives people guidance as to how to act in order to avoid future legal risk."
Asked what the cost implications may be for schools, Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union the NAHT, said it "ought to be possible for schools to provide vegan food at a similarly competitive price to their usual menus".
"Schools are very used to catering for children with a wide variety of dietary requirements, from allergies and intolerances to religious and philosophical beliefs," he said.
"Veganism might be on the rise, but other protected characteristics like religion have always had to be provided for at lunchtime.
"Schools often contract out their food supply to big catering companies who are very used to complying with both the law and children’s health and safety, and will have vegan alternatives they can provide if asked.
"Any cost implication is more likely to fall on the catering company, or possibly the individual child/family, rather than the school, but it ought to be possible to provide vegan food at a similarly competitive price to their usual menus."
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, added: "While this is a new ruling, it is likely that many schools will already have experience of supporting vegan pupils.
"Existing government guidance on school food says that schools should make reasonable adjustments for pupils with particular requirements, for example to reflect medical, dietary and cultural needs.
"In fact, the food standards for schools in England suggest that all children should be encouraged to have a meat-free day each week, using alternatives such as pulses, soya mince, tofu and Quorn.
"The Vegan Society also provides advice about vegan catering in schools, as well as highlighting the fact that activities such as school trips to farms or zoos will not be in line with vegan beliefs, and that alternative options should be discussed.
"Schools are accustomed to responding in an appropriate manner to the needs of all their pupils and will seek to support vegan pupils to the best of their ability."
However, Mr Mansbridge said "very few" schools currently provide vegan meals as part of their main menus.
A spokesperson for the DfE said: "Headteachers, governors and their caterers are best placed to make decisions about their school food policies.
"We encourage schools to speak to parents about their school meals provision and act reasonably to ensure it best meets the needs and beliefs of their school community."