How simple oats turned into a High Court battle about what we used to call milk…

“Wow no cow!” as it says on the carton. And yet still a whiff of what a dairy-consuming sceptic might call bullshit.

Yesterday, Oatly lost a court case against a family-run farm in Cambridgeshire. Founded in the 1990s, Oatly produces a milk substitute made from oats – enhanced porridge water, if you like.

The firm sent the legal heavies after Glebe Farm Foods, saying their PureOaty plant milk took “unfair advantage”. A High Court judge disagreed, and Oatly was left with oat milk on its face.

Oatly make a big deal of being right-on and non-mainstream. If you look at what goes into their multimillion-selling ‘Oat Drink Barista Edition’, you may be surprised to find  sanctimony unlisted among the ingredients (“water, oats 10%, rapeseed oil…” – plus assorted minerals and vitamins found naturally in cows’ milk).

We have three types of milk in this house, milk-milk, soya milk and oat milk. The two that aren’t milk-milk are not allowed to call themselves milk, hence ‘oat drink’ and ‘soya squirt’ or something.

As the main consumer of milk-milk, being the family relic, I have one foot in a field of cows.

The barista oat not-milk is good in coffee, rich and creamy. I know this because I’ve tried it, before going back to milk-milk. What puts me off is not the taste but that sanctimony.

I have an empty cartoon before me now. “Shake me!” it invites, in the anthropomorphic way of modern advertising, where a thing becomes a person.

“Wow no cow!” it also says, as mentioned a moment ago.

Above those ingredients are the – frankly annoying – words: “The boring (but very important) side.” If this bores you, “flip the carton around and have a wonderful day”. It does and I did.

Then there is an extended joke about the carton being “upgraded to include the latest face-recognition software technology in order to upgrade user security…”

Gosh, I was chuckling over that for seconds.

“Powered by plants” it says on the other side – “What a cool thing to say…” There is more of this holy script, but you get the drift.

There is nothing wrong with all this. If you wish or need to spurn dairy, that’s fine (“Totally vegan,” the carton also says). It’s just that companies like Oatly pretend to be alternative and friendly, when they are just another massive corporation, prepared to bully smaller firms who edge into their shadow. They cash in on our conscience and adopt a “little-old-us” mateyness while churning out millions of those cartoon cartons.

During an earlier hearing in June, the court heard that Oatly had shifted more than £38m worth of that ‘barista edition’ oat milk, alongside £13m worth of other varieties of ‘not-milk’.

Clearly, they guard their trademarks carefully, but Judge Nicholas Caddick QC said it was hard “to see how any relevant confusion would arise” and dismissed Oatly’s case.

Philip Rayner of Glebe Farm Foods said it was “enormously gratifying… to see that smaller independent companies can fight back and win”.

On the BBC website report of the case, a spokesperson for Oatly wished Glebe Farm Foods “total success… moving forward” – funny, that, as the company had just failed in its bid to make the smaller firm move backwards. “We just think they should do so in their own unique voice, just like we do.”

And there was me thinking that it was only Boris Johnson’s spokespeople who are required to spout the most outrageous nonsense.

Right, I’m off to make a coffee using the stove-top espresso pot bought in Paris in the 1980s,  an age long before the words ‘oat’ and ‘milk’ ever snuggled up together.

Leave a Reply