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Vegan dairy-alternative products cannot be sold within the European Union [EU] under names including ‘milk’, ‘butter’ and ‘cheese’ following a landmark ruling by the European Court of Justice [ECJ].
The ruling follows a case involving German food company Tofu Town, referred by the German court.
Tofu Town bosses said consumers were not misled by the names of its products – including Soyatoo Tofu Butter and Veggie Cheese – because their plant-based credentials were clear.
Despite this, German consumer protection group VSW, claimed these names broke 2013 EU regulations. These state that designations such as milk, butter, cheese cream and yogurt can only be used for marketing and advertising products which are derived from animal milk.
Some exemptions to this rule include almond milk, coconut milk and peanut butter, however tofu and soya products do not fall under the exemptions.
Court room clash
The Trier court battle between Tofu Town and VSW saw the two sides clash over whether or not the product labels contravened EU regulations, with Tofu Town arguing that because it always used terms like ‘milk’ in conjunction with words relating to the product’s plant-based origins (i.e. Tofu Butter), it did not.
In addition, it argued, the general public’s understanding of these food terms has changed considerably in recent years.
The Trier court asked the ECJ to intervene, and it ruled against Tofu Town, asserting that names like ‘milk’ and ‘cheese’ could not be legally used to describe vegan products.
It said: “The addition of descriptive or clarifying additions indicating the plant origin of the product concerned, such as those used by Tofu Town, has no influence on that prohibition.”
The Tofu Town case will now return to the court in Trier as national courts are responsible in enforcing EU laws.
‘Strict interpretation of law’
Speaking about the case, Katie Vickery, a partner with law firm Osborne Clarke said: “What’s interesting is that the court here has interpreted the law very strictly.
“There has been a lot of growth in the sale of these kinds of products in recent years. There’s a consensus that customers obviously understand what they are buying – and firms may have thought they could get away with it.
“This ruling suggests otherwise.”
It remains to be seen whether further similar actions are taken against producers of vegan dairy-style products in the UK or elsewhere within the EU.
Alexander Anton, secretary general of the European Dairy Association, described the ruling as ‘a good day for dairy, a good day for European citizens and a good day for Europe’.
He added: “The unique and natural blend of micro and macronutrients of milk and dairy products cannot be matched by any plant-based products.
“Today’s ECJ ruling protects European consumers: dairy terms like ‘milk,’ ‘butter’, ‘whey’, ‘cheese’ or ‘yoghurt’ cannot be used by vegatable ersatz-products. Even while explaining the difference on the packaging, the makers of such plant-based products are not allowed to misuse our dairy terms for marketing their products.”
‘Little to do with consumer protection’
Not everyone is happy with the ruling.
Alexandra Clark Humane Society International/Europe’s Sustainable Food Campaigner, said: “With their environmental and health commitments the EU should be promoting plant-based products, not censoring them.
“The court cites ‘customer confusion’ as its reason for the ruling but in doing so fails to realise that the rising demand for plant-based milks and cheeses is not due to the public being misled but because people are increasingly aware that plant-based products are better for the environment, their health, and animals.”
A spokesman for the European Vegetarian Union – an umbrella organization or vegetarian societies and groups in Europe – added: “Today’s verdict by the ECJ has little to do with consumer protection.
“Plant-based alternatives to milk products have been on the market for many years.
“As many of them have been developed and produced specifically to resemble the originals, they should be allowed to be marketed under similar sales denominations.”
This ruling follows massive growth in the plant-based dairy alternative market, with predictions the global sector will balloon to $21.7 billion by 2022.
It also follows a similar battle in the US, where the dairy industry called on the Food and Drug Administration to ban dairy denominations being used to described plant-based products.