Last week, the European Court of Justice ruled that soy- and tofu-based products could no longer be promoted using terms such as “milk,” “butter,” and “cheese,”—which the court argued are reserved for products that contain animal-derived dairy. The ruling came after German company TofuTown argued that its products—such as Soyatoo Tofu Butter, Rice Spray Cream, and Veggie Cheese—did not violate EU regulations, on the grounds that they were sufficiently labeled to inform customers of their plant-based origins, which the court ruled “has no influence on that prohibition.”
The European Vegetarian Union (EVU) argued that the court’s decision was not made in an effort to protect consumers from being misled by plant-based dairy labels. “Plant-based alternatives to milk products have been on the market for many years,” EVU’s spokesperson said. “As many of them have been developed and produced specifically to resemble the ‘originals,’ they should be allowed to be marketed under similar sales denominations.” The court granted an exemption from the ban for coconut and almond milk, along with nut-based butters, which cooperating attorney for nonprofit Good Food Institute tells VegNews is absurd. “The approach of the EU is anti-competitive and paternalistic,” Barrella says. “If those exceptions are okay, then nothing is wrong with other exceptions, as a matter of logic or linguistics.”
Post-ruling, EU plant-based companies will be forced to rebrand their tofu and soy products, an action that will be enforced by local courts in member states. In the US, the Dairy Pride Act—legislation introduced last year by a group of congressmen from dairy-producing states proposing a similar ban—is still awaiting a ruling by Congress.
In local courts, the outlook for plant-based companies is positive. In May, California dismissed a lawsuit filed against Blue Diamond regarding the labeling of its Almond Breeze almond-based milk alternatives, and stated that the “claim of customer confusion is patently implausible.” In a separate case against food company WhiteWave, aimed at its Silk almond milk brand, a different California judge—Chief Justice Lawrence O’Neill—deferred the case to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in his June 6, 2017 ruling. “In the US, we have a stronger tradition of protecting free speech, including commercial speech,” Barrella asserts. “Culturally, we tend to oppose paternalistic measures by the state—particularly when it comes to absurdities like regulating language.”
Regarding the EU ruling, Barella states, “This is crony capitalism—an established, politically powerful industry squelching competition, nothing more.” Meanwhile, the plant-based milk industry continues to boom in the UK, US, and Europe, and current predictions expect the industry to reach $16.3 billion by 2018.