Sanitarium wants rival Marmite shipment destroyed

Last updated 12:13 17/10/2012
Rob Savage
COURT BATTLE: Customs seized a container of 'Ma'amite', imported by Rob Savage in August.

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Sanitarium is heading to the High Court in an attempt to order the destruction of a Canterbury importer's rival Marmite.

Customs seized a container of 'Ma'amite', imported by Rob Savage in August after Sanitarium claimed selling the spread here would be a trademark infringement.

Marmite has been a rare commodity since production was suspended in March because of earthquake damage to Sanitarium's Christchurch factory.

Savage said he was told by customs this morning that Sanitarium had issued legal papers in the high court seeking to destroy his shipment of Ma'amite.

If the company won, Savage's pallet of Ma'amite, worth $15,000, would be taken to a landfill to be ''crushed and buried''.

'I wouldn't get any compensation. In fact, I would have to pay to have it destroyed,'' he said.

Savage said after Sanitarium seized the container, the company had sent him a letter saying if he wanted customs to release the product he would have to agree to a series of terms.

The imported spread, normally called Marmite, is labelled Ma'amite as the jar is a limited edition in honour of the Queen's diamond jubilee, Savage said.

Sanitarium general manager manager Pierre van Heerden confirmed proceedings were filed on Monday to "essentially have that shipment destroyed".

"We regret it having to come to this, but we have to protect our brand," he said.

"Despite our best efforts this hasn't been successful."

Van Heerden said a verbal agreement had been discussed but never formalised, and it had become apparent that Savage did not want to negotiate.

Documents obtained by Fairfax show Sanitarium asked Savage to conceal the spread with labels ''to both the front and back of each jar'' hiding the word Ma'amite.

The letter asked his company, Savage Limited, Savage and his wife to sign a personal guarantee to never import Marmite, Ma'amite, or the cereal Weetabix again. 

It also banned Savage from speaking to the media and told him to issue the media with a statement prepared by Sanitarium if approached.

When Savage refused to sign, the company threatened to take legal action.

''I told them to go ahead,'' Savage said.

"I'm not signing something saying there has to be a media blackout and that my wife has to make guarantees about Marmite. It's ridiculous."

He vowed to keep fighting the company.

''I'll fight them in the High Court; I'll fight them anywhere. It may sound silly arguing about breakfast spread, but this is about personal freedom and choice.''

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Sanitarium had owned the Marmite trademark since 1921. 

In August, Sanitarium's van Heerden told The Press the company did not have any issue with the product, just the name. 

Although spelt differently, it phonetically sounded the same.

''That's why they used it in the UK, because everyone knows it sounds like that," he said.

''We've spent a lot of money protecting the brand, making it an iconic Kiwi brand.''

Savage said he had imported the spread in the past without any issues and felt it did not breach the trademark as the two products were "clearly different".

''Who is really going to think that a small store in Kaiapoi is the only place in the country with Marmite? It's ludicrous. We cater for people who want the British product. It's like comparing peanut butter with Jam.''

He had offered to re-label the product as ''Origi-mite'' but it was rejected by Sanitarium.

The product, made by Unilever, is currently sold on New Zealand supermarket shelves under the label Ourmate.

Van Heerden said having the product destroyed was what "none of us wanted", but they saw no other option. 
Sanitarium remained open to compromise, van Heerden said, "but that was up to Rob".

- The Press


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