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, according to a European Court of Justice judgement.
The same is true if those designations are accompanied by clarifying or descriptive terms indicating the plant origin of the product concerned such as 'Soya milk' or 'rice spray cream'.
It comes following an EU case involving a German company 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.
A German association combating unfair competition however, took the view that promoting those products infringes the EU legislation on designations for milk and milk products. Consequently, it brought an action against the company.
The German Company, TofuTown considered 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 today’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 ‘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.
The President of ICMSA welcomed the Court’s decision saying that it had been self-evidently wrong that products that contained not a trace of milk were being marketed as ‘milk’, cream’, ‘butter’ and ‘cheese’.
Mr Comer said that corporations had quite deliberately played on people’s desire for healthy, traditional, dairy-based foodstuffs while actually substituting real dairy ingredients with cheaper and more processed vegetable and plant-derived elements. It was blatantly unfair and a breach of product descriptions as any reasonable person would understand that term.
Dominika Piasecka, spokesperson for The Vegan Society, said: "The Court's ruling follows concerns over customer confusion - but realistically speaking, how likely is it that someone buys a carton of soya milk and think it's dairy milk?
"As customers are increasingly moving away from eating animals, the demand for vegan products is rapidly growing, with over half a million vegans in Great Britain now.
"There's no denying that the meat, dairy and egg industries are feeling threatened, and this court case is a desperate move to try to restrict the marketing of vegan products."