EU court decides plant-based products can’t use dairy names

June 15, 2017

The Court of Justice of the European Union (EU) has announced that purely plant-based products can’t be marketed with designations such as “milk,” “cream,” “butter,” “cheese,” or “yogurt,” because they are reserved by EU law for animal products. The ruling came about due to a case between the German company TofuTown, which produces and distributes vegetarian and vegan foods, and Verband Sozialer Wettbewerb, a German association that fights unfair competition.

TofuTown promotes and distributes purely plant-based products under the designations Soyatoo tofu butter, plant cheese, veggie cheese, cream, and other similar designations. Verband Sozialer Wettbewerb believed that promoting those products infringes the EU legislation on designations for milk and milk products, and therefore brought action against TofuTown for a prohibitory injunction. However, TofuTown argued that that the way in which consumers understand those designations has changed considerably in recent years. Moreover, it does not use designations such as “butter,” or “cream” on their own, but always in association with words referring to the plant origin of the products concerned, such as “tofu butter” or “rice spray cream.”

In that context, the regional court in Tier, Germany, asked the EU Court of Justice to interpret the relevant EU legislation. In the judgment, the Court observes that, in principle, for the purposes of the marketing and advertising in question, the relevant legislation reserves the term “milk” only for milk of animal origin. In addition, except where expressly provided, that legislation reserves designations like “cream,” “Chantilly,” “butter,” “cheese,” and “yogurt” solely for milk products or products derived from milk.

The Court concluded that the designations set out above cannot be legally used to designate a
purely plant-based product unless that product is mentioned on the list of exceptions, which is not the case for soya or tofu. In addition, the Court explained that the addition of descriptive or clarifying additions indicating the plant origin of the product concerned, such as those used by TofuTown, has no influence on that prohibition.

Press release (pdf)