London vegan cheese company, I Am Nut OK, was recently forced to rebrand it’s faux-parmesan product after a complaint from the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium that the product breached an EU regulation in relation to the cheese’s protected designation of origin (PDO).
In this article we look at the rules on geographical indicators (GI) for food products, as well as the wider rules on what you can, and can’t, call cheese.
What are geographical indicators?
The EU’s protected food name scheme covers regional and traditional foods whose authenticity and origin can be guaranteed. If you’re a food producer, you can apply for recognition of your product under one of three schemes:
- PDO – Protected designation of origin. Each stage of production, processing and preparation must be carried out in the associated geographical area. For example, “Stilton Blue cheese” is a PDO.
- PGI – Protected geographical indication. At least one stage of production must be carried out in the geographical area it is associated with. The product must have a reputation, characteristics or qualities as a result of being from that area. For example, “Cornish Pasty” is a PGI.
- TSG – Traditional speciality guaranteed. This one isn’t technically related to geographical area, but instead has a traditional name or characteristics which set it apart from other products. For example, “traditional bramley apple pie filling” is a TSG.
PDO’s and PGI’s must also be made to an agreed specification. In the case of parmesan, it must be made from non-heated cow’s milk. Meaning that even if a company were to produce their vegan parmesan cheese in the correct region of Italy, it would still not be able to call itself parmesan because it would fail to meet the legal requirements of the PDO specification due to not being made from cow’s milk.
There are 17 UK cheeses which are registered as either a PDO or a PGI, including ‘West Country farmhouse Cheddar Cheese’ and ‘Single Gloucester’.
What are the wider rules on calling non-dairy products ‘cheese’ and ‘milk’?
Have you ever noticed that soy milk is actually labelled ‘soy drink’? That’s because in Europe, dairy terms like milk, cheese and yoghurt may only be applied to products made from “mammary secretions”. However, there are some notable exceptions for things like peanut butter, coconut milk and ice-cream.
In 2017, the ECJ upheld a complaint against Germany company, TofuTown, for their use of the terms “tofu butter”, “plant cheese” and “veggie cheese”. The ECJ ruled that TofuTown must rebrand as plant based products cannot be labelled as “milk” or “cheese”.
What’s the alternative?
So, where does this leave vegan cheese makers who want to describe their products in a way which helps consumers understand which dairy-based product they’re trying to emulate?
In the UK, it is permitted to use dairy terms where the use of such terms clearly and unambiguously describes the product as being non-dairy. For example, “non-dairy alternative to cheese”. For their faux-parmesan, Sainsbury’s has gone with “grated Italian-style” and describe it as a “coconut based alternative to grated hard Italian cheese”. Catchy, huh?
What happens to PDO’s after Brexit?
The UK intends to set up its own geographical indication (GI) scheme run by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). Existing UK GIs will continue to receive protection in the UK but producers of existing EU GI registrations need to apply for UK protection under the new scheme.
Similarly, UK GI registrations may not receive continued protection in the EU and UK registration holders may need to reapply.
I Am Nut OK seem to have made the best of things and have renamed their product ‘Oh Grate’ and describe it as an ‘alternative to a certain cheese we cannot mention’. Personally, I think they’ve missed a trick, it should obviously have been called “c(he)ese who must not be named”.
If you have questions about how to label your products or are interested in finding out how we can help your business grow and stay compliant, please get in touch.
About the writer: Sarah has been vegan since May 2016 and is a voluntary member of the Vegan Society’s International Rights Network.
These notes have been prepared for the purpose of an article only. They should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice.