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Saturday, May 25, 2024

The meat of the matter

A landmark legal ruling has found that being vegetarian does not grant people anti-discrimination rights in the workplace, writes Tina Chander

Despite the increasing number of UK citizens choosing to become vegetarian, a recent Court case found it to be a ‘lifestyle choice’ and therefore not a belief that qualifies for protection under the Equality Act.
In the benchmark case of Conisbee v Crossley Farms Limited and Others, the Claimant argued he had been discriminated against on the grounds of his vegetarianism, alleging a colleague called him “gay” because of his vegetarianism.
In dismissing the claim, the Employment Tribunal determined that vegetarianism is not a Protected Characteristic for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010, because it determined that it was not a Philosophical Belief. In order for something to be held as a philosophical belief, it must:

  • Be genuinely held and not be a mere opinion or viewpoint;
  • Be a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour;
  • Attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance, and be worth of respect in a democratic society; and
  • be compatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.

The Claimant was unable to satisfy all of the above criteria to the satisfaction of the Tribunal. There are many reasons why an individual may choose to be vegetarian; it may be for religious reasons or may be because they do not agree with eating meat.
As a result, the Tribunal struggled to determine that the Claimant’s decision was not more than just a viewpoint and whether it was cogent – the point being that a person can practice vegetarianism and change their mind at any stage, and is not of the same level as a religious belief.
There is nothing to indicate that by law, an employer must specifically cater for each employee’s dietary requirements. However, it may be good practice to offer alternatives for those with dietary requirements and ensure options are available to cater for everyone at work functions or lunches.

Religious reasons to avoid meat
This is where the Employer’s obligations step up a bit. If an Employee has a dietary requirement based on their religious beliefs, then it is possible there may be risks with religious discrimination claims.
A Muslim employee who only eats Halal Meat may claim for discrimination if no appropriate options are available to them in the staff canteen. This isn’t to say an employer must cater for each and every religious requirement specifically, as having a vegetarian option available will usually be sufficient.
Employers are not expected to provide religion-specific food at work events, if it is not proportionate to do so, but they must ensure options are available. This also applies to alcohol at work events and there should be some sensitivity observed for social events, ensuring that alcohol-free options are available for those who do not consume alcohol.
The guidance here is just to be considerate. If you have employees with dietary requirements for religious reasons you just need to bear that in mind, be sensitive to the issue and ensure options are available as a minimum. However, if a large portion of the workforce has specific religious dietary requirements then it may be proportionate for the employer to cater for those specifically.
A final consideration: if a specific role contains a requirement to handle certain foodstuffs; for example, a restaurant chef or school cook being required to handle meat, then the employer may want to specify this in the job description and application process to avoid any potential discrimination.

Partner at law firm Wright Hassall. She acts for small firms to large national and global businesses, advising on all aspects of employment tribunal proceedings and appeals

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