Sanitarium takes rival to court

COURT BATTLE: Customs seized a container of 'Ma'amite', imported by Rob Savage in August.
COURT BATTLE: Customs seized a container of 'Ma'amite', imported by Rob Savage in August.

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

Customs seized a container of Ma'amite, imported by Rob Savage in August, after Sanitarium claimed that 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 today that Sanitarium had issued legal papers in the High Court seeking to destroy his shipment of Ma'amite.

If the company won, Savage's pellet 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 that 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.

Documents obtained by The Press 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 Ltd, and Savage and his wife to sign a guarantee to never import Marmite, Ma'amite or the Weetabix cereal 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,'' he said.

Sanitarium has owned the Marmite trademark since 1921. 

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.

"Today was the final day for either legal processes to begin or for the goods to be returned. Unfortunately, Savage seems more interested in talking to the media than to us."

He said British Marmite, marketed under the name OurMate, was readily available in New Zealand.

Savage contended this was a different product, but van Heerden "had it in writing" that it contained the exact same product.

"We have no issue with what's in the jar; just what is on it."

"He may have been coming in under the radar in the past. We weren't aware of that. We always protect our trademark."

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".

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

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

The Press