Written by the team of Rabbanim from the Orthodox Union:
Rabbi Eli Gersten, Rabbi Yaakov Luban and Rabbi Moshe Zywica
I bought an OU-D tub of vegan “ice cream,” which probably means that the product contains dairy, or that it was produced on dairy equipment (this is commonly referred to as DE). If it contains actual dairy, it may not be consumed after meat, while DE products can be eaten after meat but not with meat. I contacted the OU and was told that this tub of ice cream must be treated as actual dairy. How can there be dairy ingredients in an ice cream if it is labeled vegan?
This particular vegan ice cream is labeled OU-D because the flavor is certified dairy by the supervising agency. Apparently, the vegan company assumes that this flavor is DE and not actual dairy, but it is extremely difficult to make this determination because there are many layers to a flavor. A typical flavor is compounded from many ingredients. Some of the ingredients may include other flavors that are also made from multiple ingredients, some of which might also be flavors. An added element of complexity is that the various flavor components may be manufactured by multiple vendors, and each company may have a different hashgacha.
When flavors are certified as dairy, the OU often finds it nearly impossible to track down every sub-ingredient and establish whether they are real dairy or DE. For the sake of simplicity and because of the uncertainty, the OU tells consumers to treat the product as real dairy. In the case of the vegan ice cream, perhaps the manufacturer checked all the sub-ingredients and determined that they were DE and worthy of a vegan status, but it is also possible that the investigation was not thorough and their decision to treat the ice cream as vegan was based on assumptions. Because the investigative process is so difficult, the OU would not rely on the evaluation of the vegan company without independent verification, which we are unable to do. For these reasons, we consider the item to be real dairy.