The trademark suit filed by Naturesweet, Ltd. against Mastronardi Produce Ltd. is merely the latest battle over intellectual property rights involving grape tomatoes, which were only introduced to the worldwide produce market in the 1990s.
The first legal skirmish involved the right to use the term “grape tomatoes” and offers a valuable lesson on how to protect the brand image of an innovative product.
In the United States, the first “grape” tomatoes were grown in 1994 by Andrew Chu in Florida. Chu received some “Santa F1” tomato seeds from a friend in Taiwan that were ultimately turned into the first commercially significant “grape tomatoes” – a term that Chu coined for the grape-sized tomato that distinguished the variety from cherry tomatoes. Grape tomatoes are sweet and small with thicker skins than cherry tomatoes, which makes them more durable and, some argue, more flavorful.
In 1998, Chu filed a trademark application with the U.S. Patent & Trademark office for the term “grape tomatoes.” In hindsight, this might appear misguided because that term presently describes an entire class of tomato and is thus not capable of trademark protection. At the time, however, it was a new term coined by Chu that he wanted applied only to his “Santa F1” tomatoes. In fact, the trademark office agreed and issued Chu a trademark registration in March 2000 for “small fresh tomatoes shaped like grapes.” This meant that Chu had the exclusive right to use this term in the United States in connection with his tomatoes.
Almost immediately, however, Procacci Brothers Sales Corp. challenged Chu’s trademark rights in federal court, arguing that the registration should be cancelled because “grape tomatoes” was a generic or merely descriptive term and thus did not identify the source of the produce. After a relatively brief court battle, Chu Farms surrendered or otherwise lost any claim it may have had to an exclusive right to use the term “grape tomatoes,” which allowed anyone else to use this term to describe tomatoes of similar size and shape.
The take away here is that there is significant value in exclusivity and protecting innovation should be of paramount concern to the produce industry. As we all know, the produce industry is fairly unique in that many of the products look very similar. The key differences are found in the taste, quality, safety, appearance and other similar factors that may not be readily identifiable pre-sale. Therefore, the importance of packaging and related marketing innovations are vital to produce companies and they should be protected. Protecting your intellectual property not only helps define a produce company in a competitive marketplace, but it also ensures that the company receives the benefits of its investments in innovation, quality and food safety.