If you’re a vegetarian who balks at the idea of your veggie meal being cooked on the same surface as meat, you may be interested to know that restaurants are not compelled to reveal this to their vegetarian customers.

The issue was debated by the Advertising Standards Authority’s Directorate last week, in considering Vish Ramsamy’s complaint against Nando’s using symbols on its menus to denote “vegetarian items”. The V symbol appears beside the vegetarian burger and the vegetarian pita.

Ramsamy lodged the complaint on discovering that the vegetarian burgers were cooked on the same surfaces as the chicken burgers.

This meant that the vegetarian dishes were inevitably contaminated with chicken fat or oil, he said, and were therefore no longer vegetarian.

Attorneys Bouwers Inc, responding on behalf of Nando’s, said in terms of dictionary definitions, vegetarian dishes refer to dishes that do not contain meat. “There is no requirement or expectation, however, in terms of how such food should be prepared.”

The attorneys also pointed out that there were no food labelling regulations in South Africa pertaining to the term “vegetarian”. “The fact remains that there is no universal accepted definition for ‘vegetarian’, and there are substantial differences in what people interpret this to mean,” they said.

The directorate got an opinion from the Association for Dietetics South Africa, which said that preparing a meal on the same surface as an animal product, without cleaning it, would result in a deposit of animal fat on the “vegetarian” product, which was not acceptable.

The association also proposed that Nando’s either ensured the availability of separate surfaces, or clarified on its menus that its vegetarian dishes were prepared on the same surfaces as its regular dishes.

The directorate found that as many vegetarians “may arguably have no problem” with vegetarian dishes being prepared on the same surfaces as meat dishes, Nando’s menu was not misleading and dismissed the complaint.

Responding to Nando’s attorneys’ undertaking that the company would ensure the presence of separate preparation areas for all its restaurants offering vegetarian dishes, the directorate said: “It is hoped that the respondent will finalise this process urgently to avoid any frustration from clients who hold a strict interpretation of vegetarianism.”

Moral of the story: If you’re a vegetarian, and prefer your meal to be cooked separately from meat dishes, check on a restaurant’s cooking practices before placing your order.