Is There No Such Thing as a True Vegan?

Is it really possible to live a life free of all animal products?

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One ironic critique of veganism is the argument that "since animals die or are harmed in the production of products human beings can not fully avoid, there's no such thing as a true vegan, and whether directly or indirectly, vegans kill animals." In fact, there's a popular but misleading infographic that points out the many ways—obvious and not so obvious—that animal products are used in common consumer goods. However, the creator of that infographic misinterprets what veganism is, as well as how easy it is to avoid most animal products.

What Is Veganism?

Contrary to what some people think, veganism is not about living a life that's absolutely 100% free of animal products. Rather, veganism is about minimizing harm to other sentient creatures and avoiding animal products as much as possible. What does this mean? American legal scholar and animal rights activist Gary L. Francione describes veganism in terms of enlightened ethical thinking: 

“Ethical veganism results in a profound revolution within the individual; a complete rejection of the paradigm of oppression and violence that she has been taught from childhood to accept as the natural order. It changes her life and the lives of those with whom she shares this vision of nonviolence. Ethical veganism is anything but passive; on the contrary, it is the active refusal to cooperate with injustice."

At a minimum, people who call themselves vegans avoid products including meat, fish, dairy, honey, gelatin, leather, wool, suede, fur, feathers, and silk—but being vegan means more than simply changing one's dietary habits. It's also a lifestyle. For that reason, vegans also avoid circuses, rodeos, zoos, and other industries whose prime purpose is animal exploitation. While it's easy to avoid the most obvious animal products, as mentioned above, some are much less easy to spot, and some, unfortunately, are considered unavoidable altogether.


Any kind of agriculture—even farms growing fruits and vegetables—displaces wildlife. Here are some of the ways farming impacts animals:

  • Forests that were once home to songbirds, insects, squirrels, deer, wolves, and mice are converted in order to produce commercial crops.
  • Commercial farms kill crop-eating animals (labeled "pests") with natural and chemical insecticides, traps, and gunfire.
  • Even organic farms cull deer, exterminate moles with traps, and employ natural pesticides to diminish insect populations.
  • Farms commonly use fertilizer made from bone meal, fish meal, manure, and other animal products.

Animal and Insect Contamination in Food

Because it is nearly impossible to commercially harvest, process, and package food without some contamination from mouse feces, rat hair, or insect parts, the FDA allows minuscule amounts of these animal products in food.

Have you ever found an old bag of flour suddenly alive with bugs? It's not spontaneous generation. There were insect eggs in the flour all along, as allowed by the FDA.

According to CBS News, an FDA spokesperson says "when these levels are exceeded, FDA can and will take regulatory action—immediately if any disease-causing microbes are present."

Shellac, Beeswax, and Casein on Fruits and Vegetables

Shellac is a resin harvested from the lac beetle. While the beetle does not need to be killed in order to harvest the shellac, some beetles are inevitably killed or injured in the shellac collection process. Most people associate the word "shellac" with furniture, but it can be used as wax to coat fruits and vegetables, and is disguised in candy as "confectioner's glaze."

Beeswax, which comes from bees, is also used to preserve fruits and vegetables and delay rot. Casein, a milk product, is used in wax to coat fruits and vegetables. The wax can also be vegetable-based. The FDA requires a label or sign to identify fruits and vegetables that have been coated with wax but does not require the label to state whether the wax is of animal or vegetable origin.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Any vehicle, commercial or personal, that travels at a great rate of speed is also a potential killing machine for a variety of animal life forms, large and small. Birds get sucked into airplane engines. Numerous deer are killed by cars, trucks, and trains every year, not to mention companion animals, raccoons, armadillos, possums, and even snakes. And, as anyone who drives can tell you, insects hitting car windshields is a fact of life—and for the insects, a fact of death.

Tires, Rubber, Paint, Glue, and Plastics

Certain rubber materials, paints, glues, plastic products, and other chemicals routinely contain animal products but because they are not foods, manufacturers are not required to disclose their ingredients—though many in fact do. This is generally not done in pursuit of animal welfare, however. Product labeling is a consumer protection that warns people of potentially reactive ingredients or allergens.

If you want to make sure a product you're using is animal-free, it's incumbent on you to do the research. Contact the company if you have to or find an alternative product you know to be animal-free.

The Consumer Production Process

Aside from the known animal ingredients in various products, consumer products are killing animals in the form of farming, mining, drilling, and pollution. The manufacture and harvesting of products made of wood, metal, plastic, rubber, or plants is often a detriment to wildlife habitats. The energy used in manufacturing the products, as well as the packaging, often pollutes the environment.

When products and/or their packaging are thrown away, the discarded items generally end up in a landfill. Waste that is not buried is sometimes incinerated, which leads to the pollution of air and soil. A certain percentage of waste ends up in waterways negatively impacting marine life and creating both short- and long-term health concerns for animals as well as humans.


Everyone, including vegans, needs medication from time to time, but between animal ingredients and testing, sometimes one wonders if the cure may be worse than the disease. (Keep in mind that although the final product is labeled “no animal testing,” the individual ingredients that went into the making of that product may have been tested on animals.) Here are a few instances in which animal products crop up in the world of medicine:

  • Premarin, a hormone replacement therapy, uses the urine of pregnant mares who are confined in often deplorable conditions. There are other hormone replacement therapies (HRTs) available. If your doctor prescribes this course of treatment, do your research to ensure that whatever you're taking is as close to cruelty-free as possible.
  • The CDC is pushing Americans more than ever to get their flu shots. Flu shots are not only created in fertilized chicken eggs but contain proteins from the eggs themselves. Formaldehyde is used to create a chemical reaction to pull those proteins together.
  • Some medicines necessary for high blood pressure or other health problems may contain animal parts or are encapsulated in gel-caps made of gelatin, which is made from animal bone, skin, and ligaments.

Staying True to Veganism in a Nonvegan World

When we realize the extent—both blatant and hidden—to which animal products are used in everyday items from food, to clothing, to paint, and plastics, the task of totally separating oneself from goods that result from the killing and exploitation animals seems next to impossible. While vegans strive to minimize harm to other creatures, they also understand that eliminating every last animal product on the market is simply not a realistic goal.

However, by maintaining an open dialogue with nonvegans, vegans can serve to enlighten others about the ways in which human impact and oppression on animals can be lessened and their suffering alleviated. Even discussing things as simple as exploring technology to make car tires without animal products, or alerting consumers to buy unwaxed fruit, or to suggest composting and avoiding non-recyclable packaging can make a huge difference not only in the lives of animals but to the welfare and well-being of the planet we all share.