European Court Rules: Plant-Based Products Can’t Use Dairy Terms

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15 Jun 2017 --- A judgment from the Court of Justice of the European Union yesterday ruled that purely plant-based products cannot, in principle, be marketed with designations such as ‘milk’, ‘cream’, ‘butter’, ‘cheese’ or ‘yogurt’, which are reserved by EU law for animal products. The same is true if those designations are accompanied by clarifying or descriptive terms indicating the plant origin of the product concerned. However, there is a list of exceptions.

The judgment has wide implications for the food industry and follows a case involving German company TofuTown which produces and distributes vegetarian and vegan foods. In particular, it promotes and distributes purely plant-based products under the designations ‘Soyatoo Tofu butter’, ‘Plant cheese’, ‘Veggie Cheese’, ‘Cream’ and other similar designations. 
 
The Verband Sozialer Wettbewerb is a German association, whose responsibilities include combating unfair competition, took the view that promoting those products infringes the EU legislation on designations for milk and milk products and brought an action against TofuTown for a prohibitory injunction before the Landgericht Trier (Regional Court, Trier, Germany).
 
TofuTown considers that its advertising does not infringe the relevant legislation and 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’, according to the Court of Justice of the European Union.
 
During yesterday’s judgment 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 ‘yogurt’ solely for milk products, that is products derived from milk.

The Court concluded that these designations 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.
 
Responding to the judgment Secretary General of the European Dairy Association Alexander Anton 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,” he adds.
 

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