Can a manufacturer of organic alternatives call its products “soy milk” or “tofu butter”? The European Court of Justice confirms it cannot, because the European Union has strict legislation about what can be called milk, cream, butter, cheese and yoghurt.
Only for dairy from animal descent
To be clear: the products themselves are not banned, but their names are. The European Court of Justice need to address an issue between German TofuTown (which owns 'Soyatoo Tofubutter', 'Pflanzenkäse' and 'Veggie-Cheese') and a German association that deemed such names misleading.
TofuTown claimed the consumer was well aware of the differences and can easily discern organic products from others. The judges say the European legislation is clear as day: milk, cheese, butter, yoghurt and cream are all from animal descent. It can be misleading to use these names to refer to organic alternatives, even if the label clearly indicates its organic nature. The ruling confirms the common interpretation of the law.
There are a few exceptions: peanut butter, cocoa butter and coconut milk, all explicitly mentioned in the law, for each of the EU languages separately. Soy and tofu are nowhere to be found in that list, according to the judges in Luxembourg.
A poignant detail: the entire legislation is only for dairy alternatives, which means that meat and fish replacements can easily label themselves “vegetarian chicken” and “vegetarian tuna”. “These products are part of another legislation. There is no case for unfair treatment”, the Court ruled.
Not a lot of impact
The Court of Justice’s ruling has little impact for most manufacturers. “We use the term soy drink, which does not create any confusion with milk”, Alpro said. “We are all in favour of organic food and we want to clearly distinguish ourselves from dairy products.”
Alpro and the Belgian dairy industry (BCZ)’s trade federation already clashed two years ago. BCZ felt Alpro could not use the term “yoghurt” for its soy products, but the judge ruled in Alpro’s favour at first: the judge felt that the “organic alternative to yoghurt” was clear enough for consumers. The Court of Appeals overruled that decision and Alpro immediately altered its labels and communication.
The BCZ was very happy with that ruling: “The Court clearly states that dairy names can only be used for authentic dairy products. It is clear that there are major nutritional differences between milk and certain organic products. Many consumers (barely) know the differences, which may have serious consequences. It is good that the names create a clear distinction.”
EVA, an organization for vegetarians, and others do not agree. Founder Tobias Leenaert is not happy with the ban: “It is utter nonsense that the consumer is being misled. The ban’s reasoning is purely commercial. A dairy reference should help bridge the gap to actually use alternatives, something the government should encourage.” Food experts call the judgment “ridiculous”.