Plant-based foods cannot be sold in the European Union using terms such as milk, butter and cheese, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has confirmed.
The ECJ was ruling in a case referred to it by a German court and involving German foods company TofuTown.
The company sells plant-based products with names including “Soyatoo Tofu Butter” and “Veggie Cheese”.
It said customers were not misled, because their products plant origins were clear.
Since December 2013 EU regulations have stated that designations such as milk, butter, cheese cream and yogurt can only be used for marketing and advertising products which are derived from animal milk.
There are some exceptions. Coconut milk is allowed, for example, as are peanut butter, almond milk and ice cream.
However, soya and tofu are not exempted.
In the case of TofuTown, German consumer protection group Verband Sozialer Wettbewerb (VSW), which aims to combat unfair competition, complained that the names of its products broke EU laws.
The VSW went to the regional court in Trier in an effort to stop TofuTown describing its soya and tofu products as milk or cheese.
TofuTown argued its advertising did not infringe the EU legislation and so the court asked the ECJ to intervene.
The court ruled that the designations like milk and cheese could not be legally used for a purely plant-based product and said “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”.
It is up to national courts to enforce EU laws and this case will now return to the court in Trier.
In the longer term, it would be possible for the European Commission to amend the law to extend the number of exceptions and make it permissible to give soya and tofu products names like milk and butter.
A consumer group or other organisation could bring a similar complaint about dairy-style names in the UK or anywhere else in the EU.