Soya milk could be a thing of the past as the European Union’s Court of Justice ruled the term ‘milk’ can only be used for products deriving from animals.
There has been some concerns in recent times over whether plant based products can be marketed with the terms milk, cheese, butter or yoghurt. Following a case taken against a German company that produces and distributes vegetarian and vegan foods calling them ‘milk’, ‘cheese’ and ‘butter, the court ruled this week that these names must only refer to animal products. Purely plant-based products cannot, in principle, be marketed with designations such as ‘milk’, ‘cream’, ‘butter’, ‘cheese’ or ‘yoghurt’, which are reserved by EU law for animal products, the court said. The same is true if those designations are accompanied by clarifying or descriptive terms indicating the plant origin of the product concerned. However, there are some exceptions to the ruling.
German based TofuTown produces and distributes vegetarian and vegan foods under the designations ‘Soyatoo Tofu butter’, ‘Plant cheese’, ‘Veggie Cheese’, ‘Cream’ and other similar designations. The Verband Sozialer Wettbewerb, a German association whose responsibilities include combatting unfair competition, took the view that promoting those products infringes the EU legislation on designations for milk and milk products.
Consequently, it brought an action against TofuTown for a prohibitory injunction before the Landgericht Trier. However, TofuTown considers that its advertising does not infringe the relevant legislation. It argues that the way in which consumers understand those designations has changed considerably in recent years.
Moreover, it does not use designations such as ‘butter’, or ‘cream’ on their own, but always in association with words referring to the plant origin of the products concerned, such as ‘tofu butter’ or ‘rice spray cream’. In that context, the Landgericht asked the Court of Justice to interpret the relevant EU legislation. In the judgement the Court observed that, in principle, for the purposes of the marketing and advertising in question, the relevant legislation reserves the term ‘milk’ only for milk of animal origin. In addition, except where expressly provided, that legislation reserves designations like ‘cream’, ‘chantilly’, ‘butter’, ‘cheese’ and ‘yoghurt’ solely for milk products, that is products derived from milk.
The court concluded that the designations set out above cannot be legally used to designate a purely plant-based product unless that product is mentioned on the list of exceptions, which is not the case for soya or tofu. The court explained that the addition of descriptive or clarifying additions indicating the plant origin of the product concerned, such as those used by TofuTown, has no influence on that prohibition. It also added, that interpretation of the relevant legislation does not conflict with the principle of proportionality or the principle of equal treatment. As, for example, the product traditionally designated ‘crème de riz’ in French. Similarly, among those exceptions the use, in the designation of a product, of ‘cream’ is expressly permitted under certain conditions with an additional term, in particular in order to designate spirituous beverages or soups.
Alexander Anton, the secretary general of the European Dairy Association, was pleased with the ruling. He said: “The unique and natural blend of micro- and macronutrients of milk and dairy products cannot be matched by any plant-based products. The European Court of Justice ruling protects European consumers. Dairy terms like ‘milk’, ‘butter’, ‘whey’, ‘cheese’ or ‘yogurt’ cannot be used by vegetable ersatz-products. Even in explaining the difference on the packaging, those plant-based products are not allowed to misuse our dairy terms for marketing their products. This is a good day for dairy, a good day for European citizens and a good day for Europe.”