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.
Consumers nowadays tend to include more and more plant-based products into their diet. For instance, a study ordered by DuPont Nutrition established double digits of growth for non-dairy ice-cream, dairy and cheese during the year preceding June 2018. More recently, NPR published an overview demonstrating which products were most consumed during the corona crisis. Amongst these, plant-based meat alternatives and oat milk were the biggest hits, demonstrating over 200 and 300 % growth respectively. Plant-based alternatives for dairy and meat will be discussed during the Protein Summit of the Vitafoods Conference in Geneva. As you may know, this conference was shifted from May to early September. In anticipation thereof, a webinar on Protein and Protein Alternatives took place on 12 May. During this webinar, I covered the labeling and advertising of these products. This blogpost offers a recap of my contribution thereto, targeting those who are interested in this topic but could not assist.
Regulatory requirements for market access
Obviously, there are other relevant aspects for alternative protein-based products than labeling and advertising, such as the regulatory requirements for market access. For some products, like those based on certain algae or on isolates from mung beans, most likely an authorization under the Novel Food Regulation will be required. This implies that the applicant will have to put together a product dossier demonstrating the safety of the product and submit this to the European Commission. This certainly applies for cultured meat products, unless they incorporate GMO steps in their production process and / or end product. In such case, market authorization will have to be obtained on the basis of the GMO Directive and the GMO Regulation. These topics will be dealt with during the Conference in September, detailing the scientific, economic and practical implications thereof.
Relevant general labelling rules
A number of labeling rules are of relevance for any food product, including those based on alternative protein. In fact, the cornerstone of labeling law, embodied in the Regulation on Food Information to Consumers, is the prevention of misleading. This can be done in various ways, but it is of the essence that at all times any confusion about the characteristics of a product is avoided. During the webinar, I brought up the example of Mylk to clarify this. Obviously, this is not a conventional dairy product, but a plant-based product. Do you think any confusion about the nature and / or the composition of this product could arise?
This should be decided based on the so-called Teekanne decision of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). According to this decision, it is prohibited to give the impression (by means of an image or a description) that a particular ingredient is present in a product, whereas this is not the case and the consumer can only find out when reading the list of ingredients. When this test is applied to the product Mylk, I am of the opinion it shall pass. Firstly, consumers will most likely not expect conventional milk, because of the twist in the product name. Secondly, FOP it states “dairy-free”. Thirdly, most plant-based dairy products are not stored in the fridge in the supermarket. Lastly, from the list of ingredients it is apparent this product is based on coconut cream.
Sector specific dairy legislation
For the dairy sector, important guidance was provided by the Tofutown decision by the ECJ. As detailed in an earlier blog post, we learnt from this decision that – in short – it is prohibited to use dairy names, such as “Tofubutter”, “Pflanzenkäse” and “Veggiecheese” for non-dairy products. This can be explained by the fact the dairy market is highly regulated, meaning that any specific dairy product has its own product standard. This standard should be met when manufacturing and marketing the product at stake. During the webinar, I mentioned the product standard for milk, defined as “normal mammary secretion obtained from one or more milkings without any addition thereto or extraction therefrom”. From this definition it follows why the use of the work milk in combination with a plant-based ingredient is, in principle, no longer allowed.
However, there are always exceptions to the rules, also in this case. These exceptions relate to so-called traditional use, like “coconut milk” (UK) and “lait d’amande” (France). Those exceptions are mentioned on a list drawn up by the European Commission. Furthermore, the word “milk” and designations used for milk products (e.g. cream, butter, yoghurt) can be used in association with one or more words designating certain composite products (famous example: “chocolate milk”). A condition precedent however is that milk is an essential part thereof, either in terms of quantity or for characterization of the product, and no constituent takes the place of milk.
Plant-based meat replacements
For these types of products, using (or not) the word “meat” is not so much an issue, because they are no conventional meat product. This issue is rather whether it is legally permitted to use certain meat product designations, such as “hamburger”, “sausage” and the like. In the US, we have seen so-called censorship bills in a great number of States. These are usually driven by the meat sector lobby, who fear unfair competition from their plant-based peers. There is fierce opposition against such censorship, amongst others from the Good Food Institute. Mid April, the GFI reported their lobby had been successful in Virginia, where the Governor vetoed label censorship.
In the EU, we have seen similar initiatives when the AGRI Committee of the European Parliament proposed a bill restricting the use of meat product names for meat alternatives. The status of this bill is yet undecided, as the current European Parliament that was inaugurated in 2019, did not yet vote on it. Fierce lobbying pro and con is however going on. We must therefore anticipate that if this bill turns into law, it will also result into restrictions of very popular terms. The alternatives for those popular terms are not so obvious yet: “lentil slices?” or “carrot tubes?”.
Please bear in mind that restrictions can also stem from national Member State laws based on reserved product designations. In the NL for instance, the name “minced meat” and “tartar” are such reserved product designations that can only be used for products meeting exactly the relevant legal specifications.
When discussing the advantages of new over conventional protein products, certain advertising standards should be taken into account. In the EU, one of the ways to avoid misleading regarding your alternative protein product is to not emphasize certain characteristics that your product does not have. In this context, I discussed in the webinar a commercial that was made for BECEL margarine (FLORA in UK) that was shown both in the Netherlands and in Belgium. The text stated “Plants are the new cows. They are outside in the field whole year long. They provide seeds, that are a source of omega-3, which is good for your heart. BECEL is 100 % plant-based and good for your heart.”
According to a complaint filed with the Dutch Advertising Code Committee (similar to Advertising Standards Authority in UK), the comparison made between plants and cows was misleading. Rationale: it was suggested that plants had a more positive effect on the environment than dairy products made from milk. The complaint was dismissed. The ACC considered that the commercial did not at all compare the advantages of plant-based products to the disadvantages of conventional dairy. In fact, it only stressed the positive health effects of BECEL, due to its plant-based ingredients. The commercial appeared an effective (and funny!) way of advertising alternative dairy products.
Alternative protein products are food products like any other, so make sure that when marketing these, you are up to speed with all applicable general labeling requirements. Furthermore, take into account any sector specific standards, like the ones that apply for dairy products. Also, please note that at Member State level, further restrictions on the use of particular product names may apply. Finally, when advertising these products, make sure to avoid any misleading and know the rules for comparative advertising. This will be of particular relevance, especially once further labeling standards will evolve at EU level as initiated by the AGRI Committee of the European Parliament. Stay tuned – we will.
Copyright image: Nanne Meulendijks – please contact the artist for any further use.