Culinary treasure: Popular food brands fail to protect recipes

Published: March 8, 2015
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They need to undertake R&D to shield novel recipes through patents. CREATIVE COMMONS

They need to undertake R&D to shield novel recipes through patents. CREATIVE COMMONS

LONDON: With the fast food mania swiftly gaining ground, the likes of McDonald’s, KFC, Hardee’s and other American brands are gradually invading even the inner geographies of Pakistan.

Starting from big cities including Karachi and Lahore, they are now opening in small cities and towns like Kala Shah Kaku. Interestingly, there are some Pakistani culinary brands that are also on a globalisation spree, opening up in UAE and UK.

Student Biryani in Karachi, Savour Food in Rawalpindi/Islamabad and Chicken Dabu in Gujranwala are some of the most popular gastronomic brands in Pakistan. Despite being very successful, the owners of such businesses have not made any serious efforts to register their trademarks on a global level and that their recipes are not protected through registered patents.

Admittedly, the food recipes are difficult to be patented unless they are considered novel, non-obvious and useful. Take the example of Student Biryani, many experts of Pakistani gastronomy observe that Student Biryani is a variant of Bombay Biryani.

Not only the information about its main ingredients is widely available (online and offline), chefs and housewives also understand their combination and order of mixture. The most troubling issue is that a number of variants of this biryani recipe are in fact labeled as Student Biryani.

Hence, it will be almost impossible to protect the recipe under US laws, unless the family has cleverly kept the recipe as a trade secret and that the published recipes are not only mere educated guesses but are actually significantly different from the original and supposedly undisclosed recipe.

An application to protect a recipe will face problems if there already exists literature on it in the public domain. If the original recipe has already been disclosed and is available in a published form, it will be difficult to protect it through a patent.

Similar to Student Biryani, the likes of Chicken Dabu and Savour Food will find it difficult to protect their recipes through patents unless they undertake serious research and development (R&D) and develop, around their recipes, processes and materials that are non-obvious.

Sophistication of patents

As the families owning such businesses are not exposed to the sophistication of patents, it is very likely that a specialised food company may in fact set up a gastronomy R&D facility to develop recipes around processes that will be considered novel and non-obvious, and thus protect such recipes to its advantage and commercial benefits.

In fact, some food companies, like National Foods and Shan Foods, already have Bombay Biryani Masala available as part of their packaged food. One may expect that one day they will introduce a Student Biryani Masala as well.

If that happens, it will be the companies like National and Shan that are expected to benefit from the success of individual food businesses like Student Biryani, Savour Food and Chicken Dabu, by developing patented recipes around these popular products.

National and Shan are the two largest food companies in Pakistan, specialising in packaged food and recipes. Shan Foods now exports to over 60 countries, serving their clients from manufacturing plants in Pakistan, UAE, Saudi Arabia, UK and USA.

National Foods listed on the Karachi Stock Exchange with market capitalisation of Rs39.47 billion, exports to 45 countries, and with overseas operations in UAE, Canada and UK, is an emerging multinational spice company from Pakistan.

Room for expansion

Through R&D, innovation and a proper framework for protection through patents and trademarks, Pakistan’s spice companies have a bright future ahead, with huge scope for growth and expansion.

The largest spice company in the world, McCormick & Co, has market capitalisation of $9.6 billion, in comparison National Foods is valued at $38.76 million.

There are a number of other food companies, namely, Chef’s Pride, Mehran Foods, Ahmed Foods, Habib Foods, Zaiqa Foods and Kitchen Secrets among others. The share of packaged and branded spices in Pakistan’s market is 40% and growing.

Food companies can increase in size and scope by developing R&D capabilities, patent and trademark protections, and by considering vertical and horizontal growth and integration.

Shan Foods should, however, consider an IPO and develop itself into a publicly listed company.

A merger between Shan and National will create a bigger and stronger brand, which could be re-branded as National-Shan Foods. They should also devise a strategy to acquire other small businesses and brands, with a view to creating the largest spice company in South and Southeast Asia.

This sounds like an aggressive suggestion in the presence of Everest Spices in India, which has captured 30% of the branded spice market in the country, with an estimated annual turnover of $1.3 billion. Difficult it may seem on the first thought, it is certainly not unachievable.

The writer is an economist and a Phd from Cambridge University 

Published in The Express Tribune, March  9th,  2015.

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Reader Comments (2)

  • Bilal Pervez
    Mar 9, 2015 - 2:04PM

    39 million dollars is 3.9 billion not 39 billion.

    Please correct the errorRecommend

  • Owais Shaikh
    Mar 9, 2015 - 3:46PM

    Dear Dar sb,

    It is almost impossible to have a patent on a food recipe. Most of the recipes are not novel, and even some of them are novel, they will hardly be able to pass the non-obviousness test.

    Moreover, even if it was possible, it would not be advisable because in exchange of getting a patent, the applicant has to share with the world the way to make its technology (this is the tradeoff a society makes by giving the exclusive right to a patentee for a limited time). And after the patent expires anyone can reproduce the patented technology. Trade secret protection is also not viable in most cases as a prepared food can easily be reverse engineered (Coke and other formulas are an exception, thus the analysis should be on a case-by-case basis). Moreover, copyright protection for recipes is also not very viable because recipes can be written in variety of ways and thus infringement can be avoided. Even if someone gets a a copyright on a recipe, it will be almost impossible to prove infringement just by pointing to a plate of Biryani.

    The best option is to create a strong brand name and register them as trademarks. As far as I know most local food and spice companies agressively protect their brand names as trademarks against registration of identical/similar tradenames. With regards to counterfeiting of their prodcuts I do not possess much knowledge as to what steps do they take.

    Nonetheless, you are spot on with regards toyour assertion about R&D. This should be and have to be done to remain in the game.Recommend

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