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Why vegetarians are fuming over Whole Foods' chicken mix-up

May 10, 2013 at 3:57 PM ET

Stomachs are churning today, literally and figuratively.

The reason, to some, may seem trivial. But don't tell that to those of us who look at being meat-free as a black-and-white choice.

Whole Foods has admitted labels on two salads sold at its stores, a curried chicken salad and a vegan version called curried "chick'n" salad, were reversed at some 15 of its locations in the Northeast (including Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York) and sold on Tuesday and Wednesday. The switched labels means it is highly likely someone who made a conscious choice not to eat animal products wound up doing so, through no fault of their own.

For their part, both Whole Foods and The Food and Drug Administration issued statements saying the vegan salad contains soy, and the curried chicken salad contains egg. While both say no one has gotten sick, it was pointed out that people who have an allergy or severe sensitivity to soy or eggs run the risk of serious or life-threatening allergic reaction if they eat the salads. Good response?

Not if you are vegan or vegetarian.

The initial statements from both the FDA and Whole Foods seem to show appropriate concern for those with allergies, but where is the concern for those who don't eat meat? I reached out to Whole Foods for comment on this side of the issue.

"We apologize to any customers who may have unknowingly eaten food that is outside of their typical diet," Libba Letton, a spokesperson for the company, told TODAY.com. “At Whole Foods Market, we work hard to provide as much information as possible about our products." Letton went on to say, "This was an unfortunate case of human error, and we are taking steps to avoid these situations in the future."

Some of the most well-known names in the vegan community aren’t appeased by the response.

Pamela Elizabeth knows quite a lot about vegan quick-serve food. She owns the largest chain of vegan fast-food restaurants in New York City, Blossom du Jour. As with the vegan chick'n salad at Whole Foods, Elizabeth's customers often come in and grab already-prepared meat and dairy-free food like the "un-chicken Caesar salad."

As a longtime vegan herself, Elizabeth says this way of eating is taken very seriously. "We are in the extraordinary position to make a profound impact on so many lives, both animal and human," she said.

It’s an impact that seems to be lost on many today, some of whom are using the story of Whole Foods’ mistake to recycle tired jokes at the expense of vegans, instead of trying to understand why some people are so upset over this.

It’s not only "very disturbing for a longtime vegan to unknowingly eat animal flesh,” said Gene Baur, president of animal protection organization Farm Sanctuary and one of the most well-known vegans in the country. “There could also be some health issues for someone who hasn't eaten animal flesh for a longtime because our stomachs aren't used to it."

Put it this way: If you’re a steak lover and you went to your favorite upscale steakhouse, how would you feel if the Porterhouse steak you thought you were eating turned out to be horse meat?

And, many wonder, could this happen again? And, has it actually happened before and simply gone unnoticed?

"I’m sure this type of thing happens far more frequently than we know,” said food management expert Steve Zagor, head of the culinary management program at the Institute of Culinary Education. “In a business with hundreds of products requiring labels and identification, it is likely that many incidents go undetected or unreported. Whether it's misidentified fish, or types of meat, this is probably not uncommon."

As a longtime vegetarian myself and someone who hasn't eaten chicken in 13 years, this entire episode leaves a very bad taste in my mouth.

I actually shop, quite frequently, at one of the Whole Foods involved in this label mix-up and I've bought the vegan chick'n salad dozens of times. Luckily I didn't buy it this week.

It may be hard for meat-eaters to understand, but this is a way of life that simply doesn't involve compromise or mistakes. That's especially the case for those of us who are vegetarian or vegan because of animal-welfare reasons or those who choose this for religious reasons.

While those with allergies may become ill for a specific health reason, if the rest of us were to accidentally eat meat, we'd probably be sick to our stomachs as well, for our own reasons.

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