Dairy products including milk, cheese, butter and yogurt displayed on white wood nevodka/iStock/Thinkstock

Dairy names upheld by European court

NMPF continues to advocate for FDA to uphold U.S. laws regarding plant-based products using dairy terms.

The European Union Court of Justice announced Wednesday that plant-based products cannot be marketed using common dairy terms such as milk, cream, butter, cheese or yogurt, which, under EU law, are reserved for animal products.

The case was between Verband Sozialer Wettbewerb eV and German company TofuTown GmbH, which produces and distributes vegetarian and vegan foods such as Soyatoo Tofu butter, plant-based cheese, veggie cheese and other similar designations.

Alexander Anton, secretary general of the European Dairy Assn., said the ruling protects European consumers. “The unique and natural blend of micro- and macro-nutrients of milk and dairy products cannot be matched by any plant-based products,” Anton was quoted as saying in a report posted on DairyReporter.com. “Even in explaining the difference on the packaging, those plant-based products are not allowed to misuse our dairy terms for marketing their products.”

The fight over dairy terms remains a hot topic in the U.S. too. The National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) this week was on Capitol Hill, where its members continued to lobby for the DAIRY PRIDE Act -- legislation that would require the U.S. Food & Drug Administration to enforce existing food standards specifying that dairy terms such as milk, cheese, yogurt and ice cream should be used only for foods made from real milk.

In May, state milk regulators requested that FDA work with them to enforce the proper use of milk and milk product labeling terms, especially those meant to distinguish between real dairy products and plant-based imitators -- a development NMPF hailed as “the strongest statement yet that the abuse of dairy terms has gone too far.”

During the National Conference on Interstate Milk Shipments,  state milk safety regulators voted unanimously in favor of a resolution intended to clarify the responsibilities of FDA and state programs in ensuring the proper use of standardized dairy product names. 

“The state agencies, through their vote today, acknowledged that more effort is needed from FDA to clarify the role of state milk regulatory programs in assuring the proper use of the standardized names of milk and milk products,” said Dr. Beth Briczinski, NMPF director of dairy foods and nutrition. “FDA needs to stop picking and choosing which regulations it wants to enforce.”

For example, FDA’s standards of identity specify that milk is the product of cows and other dairy animals and that yogurt is the product obtained exclusively from the culturing of dairy ingredients. Absent any regulatory consistency about how these label terms are applied, “consumers are bound to be confused and misled by the growing variance in the nutritional and compositional content of imitation foods made from nuts, seeds and grains but purporting to be dairy products,” Briczinski said.

A renewed emphasis by FDA on the regulation of dairy terms would bring the U.S. into closer alignment with how the issue is handled in other countries, Briczinski noted. Canada, the U.K. and the EU “do not allow plant-based imitators to call themselves 'milk' on their packages. We have the same regulation on the books in the United States, but there has been no effort to enforce that policy.”

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