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Soy producers slam legal arguments against ‘soymilk’

By Elaine Watson , 22-Sep-2008

The European Commission (EC) and the dairy industry failed to provide “a single good reason” why the term ‘soymilk’ should remain prohibited, according to soy producers debating the issue in Brussels.

Delegates at the meeting, on September 15, included dairy industry representatives, the European Natural Soyfood Manufacturers’ Association (ENSA), and the Commission, who had gathered to discuss soymilk’s legal status.

The term soymilk is routinely used by consumers. But it is not permitted on packaging in Europe owing to a 21-year-old Regulation (1898/87) restricting the use of the word ‘milk’ to substances secreted from mammary glands.

While concessions have been made for ‘coconut milk’ and ‘almond milk’, no such derogations have been granted to soy. That was partly thanks to successful lobbying from the dairy industry, which claims the term ‘soymilk’ would confuse consumers and threaten dairy producers.

But there was “not a shred of evidence” that this was the case, according to ENSA, which presented a report from independent consultant RBB Economics outlining the legal case for soymilk at the event.

According to RBB, consumers buying soymilk are buying it because it isn’t cow’s milk and are not therefore ‘confused’ about its origins. “Soymilk buyers are a relatively small group of well informed and health conscious consumers. They do not purchase soymilk on a regular basis ‘by mistake’.” They also know that “soymilk has nutritional properties different from those of cows’ milk”, says RBB. Indeed, that is why they are buying it - because they are intolerant to cow’s milk, or they don’t want to buy animal products, or increasingly because they want to tap into the specific health benefits surrounding soy in general.

According to article three of Regulation 1898/87, exemptions can be made if “the exact nature of the product is clear from traditional usage” or “when the designation is clearly used to describe a characteristic quality of the product”

Soymilk meets both these criteria, insisted ENSA strategic affairs director Jean Cornet: “We have brought new elements to the attention of the industry and of the European institutions on the evolution of the soymilk market and on the denomination issue.

“So far, we have not had any concrete and pertinent reaction on the fact that soymilk actually meets the two criteria that trigger an exemption under the milk regulation.

“All we are asking is for the Commission and the Member States to officially consider these data [from RBB]. We know we have a case. We want it to be heard.”

ENSA spokesman Philippe Blanchard added: “No one at the meeting was able to give a single good reason as to why soymilk should not be allowed. The dairy people did not raise any sensible objections to our argument. All they did was keep asking us to clarify our motives for wanting an exemption. But that is not the legal issue at hand. The point is: do we meet the criteria for an exemption? And the answer is yes.”

The economic situation had also changed dramatically since the Regulation was created, he added. “At the time (1987), there were big dairy surpluses and there was a concern about anything that might undermine the dairy industry or distort the market. But that is clearly not the case anymore.”

Moreover, there was no question of soy undermining the price of dairy given that soymilk was far more expensive than cow’s milk, he added.

According to market research body ACNielsen, 370,000t of soyfoods were retailed in Europe in 2007, of which the vast majority (310,000t was soymilk). This represents growth of 19% compared to 2006, said ENSA.