The ruling applies to all uses of dairy names for plant-based foods.

By Mike Pomranz
Updated June 16, 2017
dairy from plants is not dairy
Credit: Westend61 / Getty Images

Language and words continue to evolve over time. For instance, a “phone” today is certainly different than what we thought of when the word was used in the 1980s. At the same time, words must have meaning. Though these issues may seem a bit abstract, the implications can be very real. And currently, battles are being fought around the globe to defend a word you might think seems pretty cut and dry: “milk.”

This week, The Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that, within the EU, a number of dairy terms must only be used on products that come from an animal. “Milk” is the most obvious one, but the court also reaffirmed this status for words like “cream,” “butter,” “cheese” and “yogurt,” all of which are protected under EU law. Additionally, and importantly, attempting to modify these terms by adding a descriptor isn’t allowed either – meaning things like “veggie cheese” or “plant milk” simply cannot exist.

The new ruling stems from a case between the German fair competition advocates Verband Sozialer Wettbewerb and TofuTown, a company that makes and distributes vegetarian and vegan foods with names like “Soyatoo Tofu butter,” “Plant cheese” and “Veggie Cheese.” Though the brand argued that consumers understand that these products do not come from animals, the court essentially ruled for the side of the dairy industry. It was “a good day for dairy, a good day for European citizens and a good day for Europe,” Alexander Anton, secretary general of the European Dairy Association, said according to Dairy Reporter.

Humane Society International weighed in a well, providing Food & Wine with a statement from HSI/Europe’s Sustainable Food Campaigner, saying: “With their environmental and health commitments the EU should be promoting plant-based products, not censoring them. The court cites 'customer confusion' as its reason for the ruling but in doing so fails to realise that the rising demand for plant-based milks and cheeses is not due to the public being misled but because people are increasingly aware that plant-based products are better for the environment, their health, and animals.”

Far from simply a European concern, a similar battle to protect dairy terms is currently happening in the United States. Earlier this year, members of Congress introduced the bi-partisan DAIRY PRIDE Act, also known as the “Defending Against Imitations and Replacements of Yogurt, Milk, and Cheese To Promote Regular Intake of Dairy Everyday Act.” (Yes, that creates the acronym “DAIRY PRIDE” which may be the best thing ever accomplished in Congress.) “This bill amends the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to prohibit the sale of any food that uses the market name of a dairy product, is not the milk of a hooved animal, is not derived from such milk, and does not contain such milk as a primary ingredient,” explains.

As the New York Times pointed out back in February, in the US, the courts have generally sided with the plant-based milk industry, however, the diary lobby has had plenty of success in Washington in the past. For now, the bills are in committee.

Update June 16, 2017: This post was edited to include a response to the court decision provided by Human Society International.