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CJEU rules: soy milk is not milk

05-07-2017

Plant-based diets have become something of a wellness trend in recent years, and this is now reflected by our supermarket shelves with a wider and wider range of related products available for purchase. However, consumers will soon have to get used to new designations for products such as almond milk, soy yoghurt, tofu butter and rice cream, following a ruling by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) that dairy names cannot be used for (purely) plant-based products. 

The ruling was prompted by a dispute between Verband Sozialer Wettbewerb (VSW), a German association dealing with unfair competition and TofuTown, a company that produces and distributes vegetarian and vegan products, including tofu butter, plant cheese and veggie cream. 

The case reached as far as the CJEU with the court responding to the preliminary questions referred to them by the German court seeking clarification on points of EU law; specifically, how the definitions of milk and milk products, that can be found in Annex VII, Part III of the 'EU Regulation establishing a common organisation of the markets in agricultural products', should be interpreted.

The CJEU found in response that it is not lawful to use the term 'milk' and 'designations reserved for milk products’ to designate a purely plant-based product, unless that product is included on the list of exceptions. Those exceptions relate to products where it is determined to be clear to consumers that the relevant products are not dairy (related); for example, butter beans, coconut cream, cocoa butter and peanut butter.

While it is debatable whether the consumer understands directly, for example, that cocoa butter is always dairy free, it is clear that the ruling will have an impact on the (plant-based) food industry. At the very least, it will require many businesses in the sector to rebrand their products and require consumers to get used to new designations for popular products such as almond milk, soy yoghurt, tofu butter and rice cream.

Frouke Hekker works in Novagraaf's Competence Centre. She is based in Amsterdam