In Europe, Court Slaps at ‘Tofu Butter’ Labels

LUXEMBOURG (CN) – It’s not butter — believe it. The European Court of Justice took a no-nonsense approach to vegan-food substitutes Wednesday, barring companies from using terms like “cheese” or “cream” on nonanimal products.

The dispute behind Wednesday’s ruling originated in Germany where regulators that battle unfair competition brought an action against a vegan-foods company called TofuTown.com.

With TofuTown arguing that no modern-day consumer would think that “rice spray cream” came from a cow, the regional court in Germany sought guidance from the European Union’s highest authority, the Court of Justice.

(More news about the day’s other EU decisions continue below this article.)

In its ruling Wednesday, the court said that dairy products alone, meaning products derived from milk, can be designated as cream, chantilly, butter, buttermilk, cheese, whey or yogurt.

The court noted that the regulations are meant to serve “the interest of producers, traders and consumers, to protect consumers and to maintain conditions for allowing competition.”

“In the absence of such limits, those designations would not enable products with the particular characteristics related to the natural composition of animal milk to be identified with certainty, which would be contrary to the protection of consumers because of the likelihood of confusion which would be created,” the ruling continues. “That would also be contrary to the objective of improving the economic conditions for production and marketing and the quality of ‘milk’ and ‘milk products.’”

Vegan Society spokeswoman Dominika Piasecka questioned this reasoning in a statement on the ruling.

“Realistically speaking, how likely is it that someone buys a carton of soya milk and think it’s dairy milk,” asked Piasecka, whose group is based in the United Kingdom.

Noting that Great Britain has over half a million vegans, Piasecka said that the demand for animal-free products is on the rise.

“There’s no denying that the meat, dairy and egg industries are feeling threatened, and this court case is a desperate move to try to restrict the marketing of vegan products,” she added.

The ruling includes a few clarifications, such as, if the milk product in question is not from a cow, the animal species that it is from must be stated.

A cream designation also is permitted in certain conditions, namely if the term is designating the texture of the product.

Evolving consumer demand, technical progress or the need for product innovation could bring these laws under scrutiny, but the court said this must be left to the European Commission.

“However, until today, such an act has not been adopted by the commission as regards the definitions and designations for milk and milk products,” the opinion states.

“It follows from all of the foregoing that the term ‘milk’ and the designations reserved exclusively for milk products cannot be lawfully used to designate a purely plant-based product, unless that product appears on the list in Annex I to Decision 2010/791,” the ruling continues. “The addition of descriptions or explanations indicating the plant origin of the product at issue, such as those at issue in the main proceedings, does not affect such a prohibition.”

Chamber President Alexandra Prechal issued the ruling with Judges Allan Rosas and Edidijus Jarasiunas.

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In an unrelated decision Wednesday, the Court of Justice upheld national legislation in Italy that requires mandatory mediation before any court proceedings involving consumers.

The challenge there grew out of a lawsuit that Livio Menini and Maria Antonia Rampanelli brought in Verona against the bank Banco Popolare on repayment of a loan worth nearly 1 million euros.

What matters, the court said, is not that mediation is mandatory or optional but that the law still gives consumers a right of access to the judicial system.

Another provision of Italy’s law that the court did take issue with, however, requires consumers to have legal assistance to participate in alternative-dispute resolution (ADR) procedures.

The court closed with its note that a consumer’s decision to withdraw from ADR procedures, with a valid reason or not, cannot impact the consumer negatively at subsequent stages of the dispute. Penalties are an option, the court added, for parties that fail to participate in a mediation procedure without a valid reason. Still the consumer must be allowed to withdraw following the initial meeting with a mediator.

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Also on Wednesday the Court of Justice cleared the way for Dutch authorities to crack down on internet pirates.

Stichting Brein, a Netherlands foundation that safeguards the interests of copyright holders, initiated the dispute in question, seeking an order that would require a pair of internet service providers called Ziggo and XS4ALL to block the domain names and IP addresses of The Pirate Bay.

Many of the ISPs’ customers use the online-sharing platform to transfer copyright-protected torrents, and the Supreme Court of the Netherlands sought guidance from the European Court of Justice about the EU Copyright Directive.

In its answer Wednesday, the court agreed that Pirate Bay can be said to infringing copyright by making available and managing an online-sharing platform.

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