The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has ruled that plant-based products cannot be marketed with terms commonly used for those derived from dairy, like milk, cheese, butter or yogurt, Food Navigator reports.
The ruling came in case in which a German association that fights unfair competition sued a plant products company, TofuTown, for having product descriptions like "tofu butter" and "veggie cheese." The court asked the ECJ to clarify the current legislation on the issue.
The European Vegetarian Union described the decision as having “little to do with consumer protection.” It claims the ruling is motivated by protection of the dairy industry’s economic interests and expects that the discussion will continue.
If this ruling is upheld throughout Europe, it is likely to cause major headaches for producers of vegetarian dairy alternatives, which have been marketed for years under dairy-related names such as soy milk. However, it is hard to imagine that this interpretation of current legislation will go unchallenged, particularly if it affects companies that have been marketing their dairy alternatives for years without incident.
So far, the United States has avoided a similar ruling, but similar fights are being waged in courtrooms and Congress. Separate lawsuits were filed against almond milk brands Silk and Almond Breeze, each of which claiming the products were falsely advertised as nutritionally equivalent to cow’s milk. Both lawsuits have been tossed out, either for another agency to rule on the issue or because the judge found the arguments implausible.
The Silk case was returned to the Food and Drug Administration for its judgment. The Almond Breeze case was dismissed by a judge who ruled reasonable consumers would instantly know a product labeled "almond milk" is not dairy.
A bill currently being considered in both houses of Congress called the DAIRY PRIDE Act — Defending Against Imitation and Replacements of Yogurt, Milk and Cheese to Promote Regular Intake of Dairy Everyday — would prohibit any plant-based food from using the market name of dairy products. Despite several cosponsors, the bill is crawling through the hearings process.
The ECJ’s interpretation of European legislation was triggered by a claim of unfair competition, which may not necessarily refer to confusion over nutritional equivalency. European law stipulates that the word "milk" is allowed to describe goat’s milk or sheep’s milk as long as the product is labeled. If shoppers are expected to tell the difference between goat’s milk and cow’s milk, they should also be able to know when a product comes from almonds. As the European Vegetarian Union points out, it is in everyone’s interest to clarify the difference.
Although they are growing rapidly in popularity, sales of non-dairy milk alternatives are still low compared to sales of dairy milk products, at $1.9 billion compared to $17.8 billion. However, the dairy sector feels under threat. According to Mintel, U.S. non-dairy milk sales grew 9% in 2015, while dairy milk sales fell 7% in the same period.