A storm in a tofu teacup? Dairy industry should focus on innovation not plant alternatives, says analyst

By Niamh Michail

- Last updated on GMT

© iStock
© iStock

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The dairy industry should stop patrolling supermarket shelves for crimes such as 'soy milk' or 'tofu butter' and focus on innovation in its own sector, according to Packaged Facts analyst David Sprinkle.

Since 2013, European Union law has specified that dairy terms such as milk, cheese, yoghurt and butter are restricted to animal products but enforcement was relatively lax and breaches tended to be dealt with on a case by case basis. Europe's leading soy producer Alpro found itself in breach​ in Belgium while last year a German court enforced the rules​ when it said manufacturer TofuTown could not call its soy-based product 'vegan cheese'.

It was this case brought against TofuTown that would lead to a definitive ruling earlier this year by the European Court of Justice​ ​that purely plant-based products can not use dairy terminology such as milk, cheese or yoghurt.

The ruling prompted the usual reactions. The European Dairy Association said the court’s decision was “a good day for dairy, a good day for European citizens and a good day for Europe” ​while the European Vegetarian Union (EVU) said the verdict had little to do with consumer protection and was motivated by first and foremost by economic reasons.

A tempest in a teacup

In a white paper Terminology Tempest in the Dairy Case by research director at Packaged Facts, David Sprinkle, questions why the dairy lobby has taken the issue to heart.

“The essential purpose of food identity standards is to protect consumers from buying products that aren’t what they claim to be," ​he says. "[…] Adulterated products — diluted or made cheaply with inferior and sometimes unsafe substitute ingredients — have a long and dishonourable history in the milk industry, in urban as well as remote markets, such that the concept of dairy ‘purity’ is rightfully close to the heart of dairy producers.”

But times have changed and soy products are no longer second-best imitations and substitutes. Plant milks made from soy, almond, coconut, coconut and oats are popular products in their own right bought by consumers who either eschew dairy completely or by those who complement their dairy purchases with plant-based alternatives.

“It’s difficult if not alarming to imagine a consumer so unwary as to purchase Tofu Town Soyatoo! Tofubutter—further labelled as “100% vegetal,” and boasting of being “the best soy on planet earth”—under the assumption that this product is dairy fare.”

This argument holds ground even more so given that plant milk buyers tend to be fairly clued in to nutrition and are likely to pay more attention to food labels compared with dairy fans, according to Sprinkle.

Nutritional arguments

Where the dairy lobby does have a point, Sprinkle writes, is when comes to consumer perception over plant-based alternatives’ healthiness. Cows’ milk, for instance, is a good source of calcium, has no added sugars, is low in fat and has some protein and, apart from chocolate milk, this is more or less always the case. The same cannot be said for plant alternatives, which vary in the amount of added sugar, emulsifiers and additives they contain.

Nevertheless, he sees the main motivation as being monetary.

“With their non-dairy identity a given, they are signalling to consumers which dairy products they aim to compete with. So it’s true that non-dairy products compete brazenly against dairy products, but that’s how the marketplace works.”

“[…] it’s hard to shake the sense that dairy association lobbying for regulatory action is about the money — that is, about throwing regulatory obstacles in the way of a challenging marketplace competitor that is gaining ground.”

Focus on dairy innovation

It’s a case of Goliath throwing stones at David, for the minute, but in terms of wider consumer purchasing trends, the fact that tofu butter will have to think of a new name is unlikely to have a significant impact on sales, says Sprinkle.

“Meaningful innovation with premium dairy products, rather than border patrolling dairy alternatives, should be the dairy industry’s main focus​,” he concludes, ​adding that, from grass-fed cows’ milk to probiotic-fortified yoghurts or artisan-style cheese, there is plenty to choose from.

Related topics Regulation & Safety

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