Just as good as a daily glass of milkPosted: December 29, 2013
Recently, Advocate General Wathelet rendered his conclusion in a case regarding the claim “Just as good as the daily glass of milk” used for a dairy product consisting of fruit curd. Why is this opinion of interest? It provides clarity on the scope and content of the notion of a health claim. Furthermore, opinions rendered by Advocate Generals have a good predictive power for the likely outcome of the decision by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). In other words, there is a good chance that said Court will follow the explanation proposed by the Advocate General.
Facts and figures
The German company Ehrmann marketed a fruit curd offered for sale under the name of Monsterbacke in six joint units of each 50 grams. According to the nutrition table of this product, it contains per 100 g 105 kcal of energy, 13 g sugar, 2,9 g fat and 130 mg. calcium. By way of comparison: a glass of milk contains per 100 g also 130 mg calcium, but only 4,7 g sugar. As of 2010, Ehrmann promoted its product with the slogan “Just as good as the daily glass of milk”, whereas none of the information obligations referred to in article 10.2 of the Health Claim Regulation was met. These obligations aim at securing full information on the product bearing a health claim, such as the quantity of the food and the pattern of consumption required to obtain the beneficial effect.
Preceding legal proceedings
The German Centre for Protection against Unfair Competition (Wettbewerbszentrale) took Ehrmann to Court (Landgericht Stuttgart), as it considered the slogan “Just as good as the daily glass of milk” to be misleading. In comparison to milk, Ehrmann’s fruit curd contained much more sugar and this was not mentioned on the packaging. Also, due to its comparison with milk, Ehrmann’s product hinted at containing just as much calcium as milk and thereby alluded to a health benefit. Ehrmann did not agree and argued that its fruit curd was a product comparable to milk in many respects, whereby the difference in sugar was just too small to mention. The first instance Court followed this line of reasoning, but the Appeal Court (Oberlandesgericht Stuttgart) did not. According to this Appeal Court, Ehrmann’s slogan was misleading, because 100 g of Ehrmann’s fruit curd contained much more sugar than 100 g milk. Ehrmann filed a so-called appeal for revision (“Revision”) with the German Supreme Court (Bundesgerichtshof), who dropped the qualification of misleading information, but found instead that the slogan “Just as good as the daily glass of milk” qualified as a health claim.
Case before the CJEU
The one single question that the German Supreme Court referred to the CJEU basically related to the transitional regime applied to the Health Claim Regulation, when the lists of authorized claims were not yet in place. The referring Court wanted to know if at that time (2010) the information obligations referred to above were already applicable. This question was answered in the affirmative, inter alia because the requirements laid down in article 10.2 of the Health Claim Regulation aim to protect the consumer. From that perspective, it would be contradictory to suspend those requirements any time. This would also not be in line with the authorized claims themselves that have an evolutionary character. Even more interesting than the proposed answer to the preliminary question were two other aspects raised by the Advocate General. (1) Is it up the CJEU to confirm whether indeed the slogan “Just as good as the daily glass of milk” qualifies as a health claim and (2) what is in fact the scope and content of the notion of health claim in general?
Qualification of slogan as health claim by CJEU?
The different German instances had taken different views regarding the question whether the slogan “Just as good as the daily glass of milk” qualified as a health claim. Whereas the Stuttgart Appeal Court for instance did not consider this slogan to be a health claim, the German Supreme Court came to a different conclusion. Ehrmann did not agree with this conclusion and considered that the CJEU had to provide guidance to this respect to the German Supreme Court. The Advocate General however does not agree. He is of the opinion that there is no reason to cast doubt upon the qualification of facts by the referring Court. Now that the German Supreme Court did not ask any specific question on the qualification of the slogan at stake as a health claim, it is not up to the CJEU to rule on that issue.
Scope and content of “health claim” in Deutsche Weintor and Green Swan
The Advocate General did take the liberty to explore the notion of health claim. As a start, he referred to its broad definition as “any claim that states, suggests or implies that a relationship exists between the consumption of a food category, a food or one of its constituents and health”. He then referred to the CJEU decision re. Deutsches Weintor, in which it was held that the notion of “easily digestible” for wines amounted to a health claim. The CJEU reasoned that the definition of health claim provides no information as to whether the relationship between the intake of a food and the claimed beneficial effect must be direct, indirect, or as to its intensity or duration. In those circumstances, the term “relationship” must be understood in a broad sense. This approach of the notion of health claim was confirmed in the CJEU decision Green – Swan Pharmaceuticals. In this decision, the CJEU held that for a claim to qualify as a reduction of disease risk claim, it is not required that such claim expressly states that the consumption of a food significantly reduces a risk factor in the development of a human disease. This is despite the fact that the notion of “significantly” figures in the definition of disease risk reduction claim (art. 1.4.6). To the contrary, it is sufficient that the claim may give the average consumer the impression that the reduction of a risk factor is significant.
Based on the explanation given of the notion of health claim in the CJEU decisions discussed above, the Advocate General concludes that the slogan “Just as good as the daily glass of milk” also qualifies as a health claim. According to him, the average consumer considers milk as a wholesome product. By linking the fruit curd to milk, an implied health effect is communicated. All the more so, since the relation between the intake of the fruit curd and the alleged beneficial effect is interpreted in a very broad way. As a more general conclusion for this contribution, it should be noted that claims on food products readily qualify as health claims. As a food operator, be aware that you meet all requirements for the use of such claims!
image Johannes Vermeer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons