Lawsuit: Consumers won't believe a vegan substitute is not butter
- Miyoko’s Kitchen, a California manufacturer of plant-based cheese and butter products, has been sued by a woman from Long Island, New York, who claims consumers are being duped into thinking the company's vegan butter is functionally and nutritionally equal to dairy butter when it's not, Food Navigator reported.
- In the class-action complaint filed Oct. 30 in New York, plaintiff Jasmine Brown said Miyoko's Kitchen Cultured Vegan Butter uses dairy terms on its packaging to describe how the product "melts, brown, bakes, and spreads like butter." Consumers may believe the product is as good as real butter and pay $6.99 per package for it, the complaint stated.
- Company founder Miyoko Schinner told Food Navigator her plant-based product packaging makes it clear the product isn't made from cow's milk. She noted wording on the packaging has been changed since and now reads, "cultured vegan butter made from plants," and "melts, browns, bakes and spreads phenomenally."
This labeling lawsuit isn't just challenging the use of the word "butter" on non-dairy product packaging. It's also claiming Miyoko's Kitchen Cultured Vegan Butter isn't nutritionally equal to real butter. The suit claims that the product — made with coconut and sunflower oil, cultured cashew nuts and other ingredients — "basks in dairy’s 'halo' by using familiar terms to invoke positive traits, including the significant levels of various nutrients typically associated with real dairy foods."
The complaint states that the product meets Food and Drug Administration standards to identify as margarine but not butter because it doesn't contain at least 80% milk fat. The vegan product also falls short nutritionally on both counts because it doesn't contain vitamins A and D and calcium, the complaint added.
This lawsuit comes at a time when the definition of "milk" is being challenged. The FDA has asked consumers what the term "milk" means to them and may tighten up the standards of identity for marketing milk, depending on the responses. The agency could decide to mandate alternative terms for dairy alternatives — such as "plant-based beverage" or "fortified beverage," or in this case, perhaps "vegan spread," "buttery spread" or "vegan margarine." The definition of dairy could be decided by how consumers use products and interpret label terms. This suit shows there still may be some uncertainty about that, although a survey found most consumers aren't confused about dairy terms.
The dairy industry has been pressing for action as plant-based products using dairy-like terms — milk, butter, cheese and yogurt — take an increasing share of the market. Dairy has been hit hard by competition from beverages made from soy, rice, almonds, hemp, oats and other nuts and grains — as well as from a record milk surplus, prices below the cost of production and recent Chinese tariffs on U.S. cheese and whey. Consequently, the industry is doing whatever it can to crack down on plant-based products using dairy terms on their products when there are no animal-derived ingredients present.
It might not be easy to prove consumers are being duped into thinking this plant-based vegan spread is dairy butter. The packaging sports the word "vegan," plus the ingredient list contains no dairy-based items. Some consumers don't check ingredients before buying a product, but vegan spread doesn't always look, smell or taste like dairy butter. This kind of vegan spread is also more expensive than dairy butter, which may give a confused consumer reason to pause and take a second look at the product.
Michele Simon, executive director of the Plant Based Foods Association, told Food Navigator the complaint against Miyoko's Kitchen was "a frivolous lawsuit."
"I’m sorry to say that while there is no merit to these cases, it does mean that our member companies do have to make sure they are doing what they can to mitigate the risk of FDA action, state level action and consumer lawsuits," she said.
As more food companies use plant substitutes to made traditional products, some new versions are hit with standard of identity lawsuits. But sometimes the companies making the new products prevail. In 2014, Unilever — which makes Hellmann's Mayonnaise — sued Hampton Creek (now known as JUST) for labeling its vegan mayonnaise "Just Mayo." The CPG giant argued that the startup didn't use eggs in its product, meaning that it fell short of the standard of identity for the condiment. After negotiations, Unilever dropped its lawsuit. The FDA, which sent a warning letter to the company, was satisfied after some label changes were made to Just Mayo.
Regardless of how the lawsuit over the Miyoko's Kitchen's product concludes, it signals more disputes are coming over plant-based products using names traditionally associated with dairy products. Even if most consumers aren't confused by the packaging, that probably won't dissuade the dairy industry from continuing to make similar arguments in court, in state legislatures and in Congress.