What can we learn from the Impossible vs. Incredible case in the Netherlands?
At the end May this year, the Court of The Hague rendered a remarkable judgment: at the request of Impossible Foods, Nestlé was banned from launching its INCREDIBLE BURGER in the EU. How is this possible? Impossible Foods is not even on the market in the EU yet. This article examines the court’s considerations and discusses the lessons that can be learnt by companies wishing to enter the EU market with meat substitutes.
Impossible Foods has been marketing its vegetable burger under the brand IMPOSSIBLE BURGER in the US since 2016. It also aims entering the EU market, but is still awaiting a marketing authorisation under the GMO Regulation. The burger of Impossible Foods contains genetically modified heme, which makes such authorisation necessary. Nestlé is seeking to meet the demand for more plant-based products as well and therefore also developed a plant-based burger. Nestlé had announced at the end of 2018 that it would market this product under the name INCREDIBLE BURGER. After Impossible Foods warned that this name would violate its trademark rights vested in IMPOSSIBLE BURGER, Nestlé decided to introduce its burger under the name AWESOME BURGER in the US. In the EU, however, Nestlé continued the original plan and marketed its vegetable burger under the name INCREDIBLE BURGER as of February 2019. Meanwhile, Impossible Foods had obtained a registration of its EU trademark IMPOSSIBLE BURGER. Nestlé filed a so-called nullity action against this mark with the EUIPO (the European Union Intellectual Property Office). According to Nestlé, this trademark is insufficiently distinctive, which is one of the requirements to obtain a valid trademark. In the meantime, however, Impossible Foods had initiated a court case before the District Court of The Hague in the Netherlands. In this case, Impossible Foods sued ten Nestlé companies, claiming that these should be prohibited from further use of the trademark INCREDIBLE BURGER in the EU. As of that moment quite some procedural spaghetti evolved, which I will explain below.
The case concerned regular proceedings on the merits, which can easily take a year and a half before any judgment being made. Of course, this would be too long to prevent the intended market introduction of the INCREDIBLE BURGER. Impossible Foods had therefore made use of the possibility to apply for an interim injunction during these main proceedings. Nestlé obviously opposed such interim injunction. In essence, Nestlé argued that the court in The Hague should refrain from ruling as long as the EUIPO in Alicante had not decided whether Impossible Foods has a valid trademark at all. Nestlé’s application for a stay of proceedings related to both the proceedings on the merits and to the interim injunction. In the main proceedings, that request was granted in order to prevent any conflicting rulings in the EU regarding the same trademark. With regard to the interim injunction, that request was rejected because a trademark proprietor must always be able to protect its trademark rights. Moreover, based on the Regulation on the Union Trademark and two European treaties, the court in The Hague declared itself competent to hear Impossible Foods’ claim in respect of all ten defendants. The fact that these proceedings had not been initiated in the country where Nestlé has the largest market share within the EU (Germany), nor in the country where Nestlé’s parent company is established (Switzerland), did not change this.
IMPOSSIBLE BURGER complies as a brand
Impossible Foods’ claim for an injunction was based on trademark infringement. Before the court could assess this claim, Nestlé’s defences had to be assessed first. The court did not agree with Nestlé’s assertion that IMPOSSIBLE BURGER for meat substitutes is exclusively descriptive. On the basis of this name, the average consumer does not automatically conclude that this is a vegetarian burger that resembles meat as much as possible. In fact, “impossible” is anti-descriptive for a burger that does exist. On the same grounds, the court ruled that IMPOSSIBLE BURGER does not lack any distinctive character for meat substitutes. Also, the use of this trademark did not have a purely laudatory message. IMPOSSIBLE BURGER can indeed fulfil a designation of origin function as a trademark, which is further enhanced by the relationship with the name of the trademark owner. IMPOSSIBLE BURGER therefore qualifies as a trademark, at least in the context of the interim relief in the present case. The EUIPO may decide otherwise in due course, which will influence the decision of the court in the proceedings on the merits.
Preconditions for trademark infringement
Trademark infringement exists, inter alia, if there is a likelihood of confusion between two trademarks. In order to assess this, it needs to be examined whether there is similarity between the two trademarks visually, aurally and conceptually. Also relevant are (i) the degree of similarity between the goods for which the trademark is registered and for which the sign is used, (ii) the degree of distinctiveness of the trademark and (iii) the relevant public when assessing the likelihood of confusion. According to Nestlé, the relevant public in this case is in fact the general public, now that most people consume meat, fish and poultry or substitutes for these products. The judge agreed. He further ruled that the level of attention when purchasing such everyday consumer products is relatively low.
Likelihood of confusion deemed plausible
The judge ruled that visually there is a considerable degree of similarity between IMPOSSIBLE BURGER and INCREDIBLE BURGER. Mark and sign each have six syllables, the first word is constructed in the same way and the second word is identical. Phonetically, trademark and sign are to a certain extent similar according to the judge, although there is also a difference in this respect. Because of the identical number of syllables, the cadence is the same, but the second syllable clearly differs. There is only a low degree of conceptual similarity: “impossible” is simply something different than “incredible”. The judge thereby assumes that the average consumer of meat substitutes in the EU is able to grasp the meaning of these English words. Some conceptual similarity between the trademark and the sign lies in the fact that both raise a question: ‘What, then, is so impossible or incredible? Considering that both IMPOSSIBLE BURGER and INCREDIBLE BURGER are used for meat substitutes and it has been established that the level of attention paid to the purchase of such products is low, the court deems the risk of confusion plausible. Two aggravating facts contributed to this.
Firstly, even before the IMPOSSIBLE BURGER was on the market in the EU, actual confusion had taken place between the two products. Secondly, Impossible Foods had argued undisputedly that in the summer of 2018, negotiations had taken place between the parties about a possible cooperation. This would allegedly take the form of a licence granted by Impossible Foods to Nestlé to use the IMPOSSIBLE BURGER brand. In such a context, it is likely that exchanges of confidential information took place, whereas Nestlé had launched the INCREDIBLE BURGER during the ongoing negotiations. This creates the impression in court that Nestlé has chosen a deliberate strategy to frustrate the successful launch of the IMPOSSIBLE BURGER in the EU.
Prohibition action justified
Under these circumstances, the court ruled that the injunction sought was justified. Nestlé objected that such an injunction, even in the form of a temporary injunction for the duration of the main proceedings, would require it to ‘re-brand’ its product and destroy its current stock. This would in fact amount to definitive measures, which should only be taken in the proceedings on the merits. On the other hand, the court held that Nestlé’s market launch of the INCREDIBLE BURGER in February 2019 was actually undertaken at risk. It knew that, according to Impossible Foods, its brand was infringing the IMPOSSBLE FOODS brand and had nevertheless chosen to do so. The infringement action was therefore granted for the entire EU, with the exception of purely descriptive use (i.e. as part of an English-language sentence without any emphasis in font size or capital letters).
This is a far-reaching decision based on only convincing visual similarity between the mark and the sign. This is all the more so, now that the IMPOSSIBLE BURGER is not yet on the market here. From that perspective, it is important to know that in an injunction based on a trademark right, it is not a requirement that that trademark is actually used. Such a requirement only applies five years after registration, failing which the unused trademark will be vulnerable to cancellation. Furthermore, in this case the (somewhat) limited similarity between the trademark and sign is amply compensated by the identity between the goods, i.e. meat substitutes. On top of this are the aggravating facts on the basis of which the court seems to rule that Nestlé brought this situation upon itself. Because of the unitary character of the Union trademark, this situation is not limited to the Netherlands, but Nestlé was imposed an EU-wide injunction.
Knowing just the rules is not enough
What can companies that want to introduce new meat substitutes or other alternative protein-based products on the EU market learn from this decision? In an earlier post at FoodHealthLegal, we informed about the possible names for alternative proteins-based products within the applicable regulatory framework. This showed that according to specific EU labelling rules and case law there are some restrictions in the choice of such name. For instance, the use of dairy names is not permitted for non-dairy products. Also, at Member State level there are sometimes restrictions based on so-called reserved designations. As such, ‘minced meat‘ may only be used for minced beef with a fat percentage of at least six percent in the Netherlands. This court decision shows that it is not enough to know the rules; knowledge of the market is also indispensable upon market introduction of a new meat replacement. Research this market and its players before introducing new innovative food products, not only in the home market but also in other possible markets. Investigate the availability of the intended product name and act in accordance with the outcome. This may take the form of an alternative name or a co-existence agreement with the company that markets a product with a similar name. This will avoid spending a fortune on re-branding and in the end it will prevent food waste.
What does the future of our meat look like? This topic was the subject of the Annual Conference of the Good Food Institute (GFI), which took place in San Francisco last month. GFI is an American non-profit organization that works with entrepreneurs, scientists and investors to make groundbreaking good food a reality. GFI focuses on the development of alternatives to animal products, consisting of plant-based products and products manufactured using cellular techniques (“cultured meat” or “cultured fish”).
Trends from Silicon Valley also in EU
The issues raised at this conference are also relevant to Europe. In the Netherlands, for example, the Nutrition Centre advises that it is better for human health to have a more plant-based diet than has been the case until now. For example, the risk of cardiovascular disease would decrease if the diet included less meat and more wholegrain cereal products, legumes, vegetables, fruit and vegetable meat substitutes.
GFI sessions: trending topics
In the country where the Beyond Meat citizen comes from, it was recognized that a large-scale breakthrough of meat alternatives has not yet taken place. The titles of the presentations were telling: “Marketing to Meat Eaters: How to Reach the Other 95 Percent of American Consumers“, “Capitalizing on Change: How Investors Accelerate the Plant-Based and Cell-Based Industries” and “Addressing the Key Challenges in Commercializing Cell-Based Meat“. Participants in the last session of the conference (“Cell-Based Meat Entrepreneurship“) were JUST and Memphis Meats, the companies that are said to be “closest to the market” with their cultured meat products. According to JUST, they will launch a cultured meat burger still this year. But that’s what they say every year.
Plant-based meat substitutes in the US
What is legally required to be able to market meat alternatives? Of course, it all starts with the name: what can you call these products? The basic rule, both in the US and in the EU, is that consumers must not be misled. In the case of plant-based products, this principle is applied in various ways in the United States. For example, the burger of Beyond Meat (which is now also available in the Netherlands) is simply referred to as the BEYOND BURGER and described as “the world’s first plant-based citizen that looks, cooks, and satisfies like beef…“. Impossible Foods also refers to its company name in its IMPOSSIBLE BURGER. This product is not yet on the market in the EU, partly because it contains a protein of which the regulatory status in the EU is not entirely clear (so-called leghomoglobin). This protein is obtained on the basis of fermented yeast, possibly using GMO techniques. Finally, Morning Star (“It easy eating green“), when selling its plant-based burgers, refers to the flavour-defining ingredient that they contain, for example “mediterranean chickpea burgers” and “spicy black bean burgers“. Confusion with conventional meat products does not seem to be an issue here.
And what about the EU? Famous example of the Vegetarian Butcher
In the meantime, more and more plant-based meat substitutes are also being sold in the EU. One of the best-known examples of (alleged) confusion about product names in the Netherlands concerned the case of the Vegetarian Butcher, a company that was acquired by Unilever in December 2018. At the end of 2017, the Dutch Food Safety Authority (NVWA) asked this company to modify the labels of the products offering a substitute for tuna, chicken and bacon (all spelled with a twist in Dutch), because these would be misleading. It turned out afterwards that the criticism concerned only the information on the website. The NVWA apologised and the Vegetarian Butcher did not have to change any product labels.
Proposal for a ban on Vegaburger in the European Parliament
The next shockwave took place at European level when, in April of this year, the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development (AGRI Committee) of the previous European Parliament adopted a proposal to ban the use of meat names for plant-based products. On the basis of this proposal, it would no longer be possible to use the names ‘steak’, ‘sausage’, ‘ham’, etc. for plant-based products. A new European Parliament has now been elected. It has been reported from Brussels sources that the new AGRI Committee has taken the old proposal as a starting point for a working document. However, so many forces are working together against the previously envisaged ban that the chances of this happening are not considered to be very great. Arguments against this ban are that it would inhibit innovation in the EU, harm consumer rights and simply not be necessary: consumers are not so easily confused about plant-based meat substitutes. With the slogan “Stop the vegaburger ban“, Pro Veg launched a petition against this ban.
Cultivated meat in the US
Currently, about 30 companies active in the field of cultured meat worldwide. The companies that are most advanced with their innovations are located in the US. Menphis Meat, for example, focuses on the development of beef and poultry from the lab. This company has received investments from both well-known names (Bill Gates, Richard Branson) and from the “classic” meat industry (Tyson and Cargill). JUST focuses on the development of, among other things, chicken meat from the lab. The company has already launched an egg-free mayonnaise, that was the object of discussions with the FDA. According to the current product standard for mayonnaise, this product must contain eggs, otherwise it cannot be called “mayonnaise”. This problem was solved by changing the name of the product (“JUST Mayo”). How cultured meat will be named upon its market introduction is yet an open question. However, five companies have joined forces: they form the so-called Alliance for Meat Poultry and Seafood Innovation to approach the supervisory authorities with one voice. GFI has also developed a narrative framework to familiarise consumers with this technology and it published the results of market research into favorite names. For the time being, “cultivated meat” and “cultured meat” are at the top in terms of “appeal” and accuracy.
Cultured meat in the EU
In the EU, the question remains whether cultured meat can actually be called ‘meat’ at all. The number of arguments for and against is more or less balanced. We reported earlier on this topic in our blogs How do we get cellular ag products to the market and Regulatory pathways for clean meat in the EU and the US; not much progress has been made since that time. The main argument in favor is that when a product is identical to conventional meat at a molecular and nutritional level, producers want to be able to use this name as well. In addition, the use of the term ‘meat’ is very functional in terms of consumer orientation. Furthermore, there do not seem to be any direct legal objections to the use of ‘meat’ for cultured meat, since the Agricultural Products Standards Regulation does not contain a specific product standard for meat, unlike, for example, dairy products. Arguments against the use of ‘meat’ are based, among other things, on the Hygiene Regulation. This Regulation defines ‘meat’ as certain parts of a variety of animals, including bovine and porcine animals and poultry. It is questionable whether a product obtained from a single cell derived from one of these animals complies with this definition. Furthermore, the Hygiene Regulation refers in various places to the slaughter of farmed animals. Of course, slaughter does not apply to cultured meat – that’s the whole point. Finally, certain meat names are subject to specific regulations. In the Netherlands for example, the name ‘tartar’ may only be used for minced meat from cattle with a maximum fat content of 10 % based on specific Commodities Act legislation.
The future of our meat is taking shape. Plant-based meat substitutes are already on the market in large numbers and these products are getting more and more shelf space in the supermarket. The challenge for these products is to keep that shelf space. A certain amount of time will elapse before cultured meat will be available on a large scale on the shelf. It is expected that the first company will submit a request for Novel Food authorisation sometime next year. It will take about 18 – 24 months to complete such an authorisation procedure. By then we will have reached 2022. This may seem a long way off for the consumer, but the preparation by the producer has been a reality for a long time. Also, it was learned via the grapevine that EU-based cultured meat companies are getting organized. Watch that space!
Now that the US regulatory framework is shaping up, the analogies and differences with the European regulatory framework for market access for clean meat becomes more and more clear. This blogpost reports these analogies and differences, based on the agreement that the FDA and USDA recently concluded on their cooperation in the field of clean meat.
Joint action FDA-USDA in regulating cell-based meat
On 7 March 2019, the FDA and the USDA concluded a formal agreement (“7 March Agreement”) on their cooperation to oversee the production of cell-based meat from livestock and poultry. As mentioned in an earlier blogpost, in the EU the European Commission is the one stop shop for obtaining a Novel Foods authorization. In the US however, foods can be subject to regulatory oversight by multiple federal and state agencies. In general, USDA regulates meat and poultry, including the inspection of establishments that slaughter such animals or otherwise process meat and poultry products. FDA generally regulates all other food, including fish and certain other meat and poultry products, such as bison, rabbits, and wild turkeys and ducks.
Essence of the 7 March Agreement
The 7 March Agreement is quite a relief for the market players concerned. For instance, the Good Food Institute issued a press release, stating “The agreement is a significant step forward in providing a transparent and predictable regulatory path to market for cell-based meat, which will help to ensure that the U.S. does not fall behind Israel, China, Japan, the Netherlands, Singapore, and other countries that are moving quickly to ensure a clear path to market for this method of meat production”. In essence, according to the 7 March Agreement, FDA is competent to oversee cell culture and production up to harvest of the cultured meat cells, whereas USDA takes over responsibility as of harvest up to and including the actual production of clean meat products. For clarity, clean fish is not included in the 7 March Agreement, as this under the remit of FDA. It seems safe to assume however that what the agencies will do for clean meat and poultry, they will do for clean fish. This assumption is based on the agreement that the agencies will develop joint principles for product labeling to ensure that products are labeled consistently and transparently.
Analogies between EU and US
By far the most important analogy is that both regulatory systems aim to assure that clean meat products hitting the market are “safe, wholesome and unadulterated” (see point 4 B (3) of 7 March Agreement). In fact, to the EU Novel Foods Regulation aims to ensure “the effective functioning of the internal market while providing a high level of protection of human health and consumers’ interest.” In order to achieve this purpose, both regulatory systems require prior market authorization, but the way such authorization procedure is put in place is in fact quite different.
Differences between the EU and US
In order to visualize the differences between the two regulatory systems at each side of the Atlantic, I have created the schematic overview below. On the left side, I summarized the authority of the FDA and the USDA under the 7 March Agreement. On the right side, I outlined how legal authority is attributed in the EU and in its Member States. As a reference Member State, the Netherlands (“NL”) has been retained, as this is one of the EU countries where clean meat activities are prominent.
|1.||Pre-market consultation to evaluate production materials & processes||No formal pre-market consultation procedure in EU Novel Foods framework, except the optional consultation at Member State level in case of doubt whether the product qualifies as a Novel Food (which is clear in the case of clean meat)|
|2.||Oversee cell collection and quality of cell banks||Oversight of preparatory production steps, as well as registration of a company as a food business operator (FBO) will be done at Member State level. In the NL, FBOs working with products from animal origin, require a so-called recognition (“erkenning“). This is a more detailed procedure (average term: 8 weeks) than the mere registration of a FBO (average term: few days).|
|3.||Oversee production process until harvest|
|4.||Ensure companies comply with FDA requirements: facility registration, cGMP and other applicable food legislation|
|5.||Where needed: issuing regulations or guidance or additional requirements re. # (2) and (3) to ensure that biological materials exiting the culturing process are safe (FFDCA)||EU Hygiene regulation targeting food of animal origin (853/2004) to apply and potentially national legislation as well. In the NL, the Commodities Act Decrees on hygiene and on the preparation and packaging of foodstuffs are applicable. Additional requirements (“conditions of use”) may also be included in individual Novel Food authorizations.|
|6.||Inspections and enforcement directed at safety of cell banks and culturing facilities||Inspections and enforcement are done at Member State level. In the NL the responsible entity is the Dutch Food Safety Authority.|
|USDA (“post harvest”)|
|7.||Determine whether harvested cells are eligible to be processed in meat or poultry products||The NF-framework requires FBOs in their application for market authorization to specify the source of the product, its production process and typical compositional features. No additional eligibility test upon cell harvest prior to production of food products.|
|8.||Require each clean meat company to obtain a so-called grant of inspection||Not required under EU legal framework. Registration (or recognition) with the competent Food Safety Authority provides the authority with the legal basis for inspection. Obviously, a Novel Food authorization must also be obtained before placing the product on the market.|
|9.||Conduct inspections in establishments where cells cultured from livestock and poultry are harvested, processed, packaged or labeled to ensure that the resulting products are safe, unadulterated, wholesome and properly labeled.||Inspections will be executed at a Member State level, based on the Official Controls Regulation 854/2004 targeting products of animal origin for human consumption inter alia.|
|10.||Pre-approval of labeling of clean meat products and inspection thereof||No pre-approval of product labels under EU NF-framework. It is the responsibility of the FBO himself to comply with applicable labeling legislation, such as the Food Information to Consumers Regulation 1169/2011.|
|11.||Where needed: develop additional requirements to ensure the safety and accurate labeling of clean meat products||Safety and Labeling provisions already in place at EU level. These are embodied in the General Food Law Regulation 178/2002 and the Food Information to Consumers Regulation 1169/2011 respectively. Furthermore, specific labeling requirements may be included in Novel Food authorizations. Also, post-market monitoring requirements may be imposed. In any event, FBOs should inform the Commission of any new relevant information regarding the safety of the NF they have placed on the market.|
|12.||Enforcement actions re. adulterated or misbranded food products||See comment to # 6. Competitors, consumers and watchdog organizations may also bring cases re. misleading food information before self-regulatory bodies. From example, unpermitted references to “meat” could be a topic of such cases.|
|Both FDA and USDA|
|13.||Each entity to cooperate with the other upon transfer or regulatory oversight at harvest|
|14.||Each party to notify the other if it identifies objectionable conditions resulting in adulterated / misbranded clean meat products|
No pre-market consultation in the EU
One of the most striking differences is that under the EU Novel Foods procedure, there is no formal pre-market consultation procedure to evaluate production materials and processes. I consider this to be a flaw in the law. Under the former Novel Foods Regulation that was in place until 1 January 2018, applications had to be filed with the competent authority at a Member State level. These authorities, at least in the Netherlands, were often willing to answer questions that arose during the preparation of applications. Under the current Novel Foods Regulation, applications have to be directly filed with the European Commission via an e-portal. There are no formal procedures to contact either the European Commission, or EFSA to answer questions on applications. If you manage to have informal consultation with an EFSA representative, no questions regarding particular applications will be answered, so a sectoral approach is your best bet. In short, we will have to learn by doing!
Written EFSA guidance
Where guidance by the Commission or EFSA on a personal level is not available, there is ample guidance based on a 2016 EFSA Scientific Opinion and a 2018 EFSA Technical Report. In fact, the 2016 Opinion provides detailed comments as to the various data to be provided in the Novel Food application, for instance on the identity of the Novel Food. For clean meat in particular, the identity of the cells from which the meat product is cultured should be provided, as well as the cell substrate used during the cultivation process, which should also be described in detail. The 2018 Report provides applicants with a completeness checklist, covering all items that should be specified in a Novel Food application. It also provides a helpful overview table of study reports contained in the technical dossier.
Contrary to the US, where enforcement is done by the authorities who also define the regulatory framework, enforcement in the EU is a national affair. This means that not the European Commission, nor EFSA are involved, but the national competent authorities. In the Netherlands, this is the Dutch Food Safety Authority, whose enforcement policy is on public record. For instance, enforcement measures directed at marketing clean meat without a proper Novel Food authorization translate into a penalty and the prohibition to further market the product. Since enforcement is a national affair, measures may vary from Member State to Member state. When marketing clean meat in Europe, it is therefore not sufficient to be familiar with the EU framework but one is strongly recommended to also gain local advice.
Open ends still occur at both sides of the Atlantic. In the US, the 7 March Agreement has given a flavor on how the FDA and USDA will cooperate, but “it does not create binding, enforceable obligations against either Agency.” So, it needs to be seen how this will work out in practice, for instance regarding the pre-approval of labels. Will the authority at Federal level take away the necessity for evaluation at State level? In the EU, it remains to be seen what type of studies EFSA will want to see to specify nutritional and toxicological information, as well as allergenicity: literature studies or rather in vitro or in vivo data?
At FoodHealthLegal, we will closely monitor the regulatory developments in the clean meat space, so stay tuned!
Credits for graphics: Mosa Meat