Plant-based foods can no longer be sold using terms such as milk, cream or cheese, following a ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ).
Europe’s highest court has warned that companies selling plant-based products such as almond and soya milk will have to be rebrand their products without the word milk, or face prosecution.
The ECJ was ruling on a case refereed to it by a German court involving vegan food distributor Tofutown which sells products with names including ‘soyatoo tofu butter’ and ‘veggie cheese’.
A German competition regulator brought legal action against company as it considered that promoting those products infringes the EU legislation on designations for milk.
However, Tofutown argued that its advertising does not breach the relevant legislation as designations such as butter or cream are not used on their own, but with words referring to the plant of origin, such as ‘tofu butter’ or ‘rice spray cream’.
The ECJ ruled that descriptive terms cannot completely exclude the likelihood of confusion on the part of consumers and that the term milk must only be used for milk of animal origin.
The judgement has been praised by dairy groups, with the European Dairy Association secretary general Alexander Anton stating: “Today’s ECJ ruling protects European consumers: dairy terms like milk, butter, whey, cheese or yogurt cannot be used by vegetable ersatz products.
“Even in explaining the difference on the packaging, those plant-based products are not allowed to misuse our dairy terms for marketing their products.
“This is a good day for dairy, a good day for European citizens and a good day for Europe.”
Non-dairy products have seen a surge in recent years amid negative health perception of dairy products. Worldwide sales of non-dairy milk alternatives more than doubled between 2009 and 2015 to $21bn.
The European Vegetarian Union criticised the ruling, claiming that the dairy names on plant-based milk alternatives have important information on what consumers can expect from products.
A spokesperson said: “Plant-based alternatives to milk products have been on the market for many years. 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.”
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