In a landmark legal victory that could reshape the dynamics of food labelling, Oatly, the renowned Swedish plant-based milk brand, has emerged victorious in a four-year court battle against Dairy UK Ltd, the trade association representing the British dairy industry.

This legal saga revolved around Oatly’s use of the term ‘milk’ on its packaging, specifically the slogan ‘Post Milk Generation’ featured on its food and drink products.

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Background: the battle unveiled

The crux of the dispute lay in whether it was legally permissible for Oatly to use the term ‘milk’ in a trademark for products not derived from mammary secretions.

Dairy UK contended that Oatly’s use of ‘milk’ violated pre-Brexit European Court regulations from 2013, which imposed restrictions on employing the term ‘milk’ in the marketing and packaging of food and drink.

The European regulations, Article 78(2) of Regulation (EU) No 1308/2013, specifically granted protected status to certain agricultural products, including dairy.

The High Court verdict

High Court Judge Mr. Justice Richard Smith delivered a pivotal ruling, upholding the validity of Oatly’s trademark and dismissing Dairy UK’s argument that the term ‘milk’ should be categorically banned on non-dairy food packaging.

In his decision, Justice Smith emphasised that Oatly’s trademark did not claim, imply, or suggest that its products were dairy based.

This distinction proved crucial in affirming Oatly’s right to use the ‘Post Milk Generation’ slogan on its oat-based products, including the popular oat-based drink.

Implications and Oatly’s position

Oatly’s legal triumph holds far-reaching implications for the plant-based food industry and consumer understanding of product labelling.

With the court ruling, Oatly can continue to market its products with the ‘Post Milk Generation’ slogan, a move symbolic of the brand’s commitment to appealing to consumers who have transitioned away from traditional dairy milk.

Oatly’s success reflects a broader trend in consumer preferences, with an increasing number of individuals opting for plant-based alternatives due to health, environmental, and ethical considerations.

The High Court decision not only reaffirms Oatly’s ability to use the contested slogan but also validates the growing acceptance and recognition of plant-based products in the mainstream market.

The road to victory for Oatly packaging

Oatly’s legal journey began in 2019 when it secured the trademark for the ‘Post Milk Generation’ slogan. However, Dairy UK objected, leading to the rescission of the trademark.

The battle intensified as Oatly contested Dairy UK’s objections based on European regulations, asserting that the slogan sidestepped the restrictions by not describing the product but rather the likely consumer.

The Intellectual Property Office (IPO) initially granted the trademark for T-shirts but refused it for food and drink, arguing that the term ‘milk’ could not be used for non-dairy products, even in the context of a trademark.

This decision was challenged and successfully overturned by Judge Smith in the High Court.

The legal dispute delved into nuanced interpretations of European regulations and their applicability post-Brexit.

Oatly’s legal team contended that the ‘Post Milk Generation’ slogan, despite containing the protected term ‘milk,’ did not fall afoul of the regulations. They argued that the slogan was not a description of the product but rather a characterisation of the likely consumer, thereby circumventing the restrictions outlined in Article 78(2) of Regulation (EU) No 1308/2013.

Judge Smith’s ruling underscored the importance of context and consumer interpretation in evaluating trademarks. He emphasised that the trademark did not purport to describe the product and was unlikely to lead to consumer confusion.

This distinction was pivotal in granting Oatly victory in their appeal against the IPO’s decision.

A precedent for plant-based brands

Ultimately, Oatly’s triumph in the legal battle against Dairy UK sets a precedent for plant-based brands navigating challenges related to food labelling.

The decision not only secures Oatly’s right to use the ‘Post Milk Generation’ slogan but also establishes a legal framework that considers the broader context and consumer perception when evaluating trademarks for plant-based products.

This victory reinforces the evolving landscape of food labelling regulations, signalling a more inclusive approach that acknowledges the legitimacy of plant-based alternatives.

As the plant-based food industry continues to grow, this legal precedent could influence future discussions and rulings, fostering a more nuanced understanding of labelling practices in a changing food landscape.

Oatly’s resilience in the face of regulatory challenges reflects the broader shift toward plant-based options, marking a significant moment in the ongoing evolution of the food industry.