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Final decision on Tate & Lyle sucralose patent case postponed

By Caroline Scott-Thomas , 10-Mar-2009

Tate & Lyle is still hoping that the International Trade Commission (ITC) will rule that a number of sucralose manufacturers and distributors have infringed its patents, as its final determination was pushed back to March 25.

Tate & Lyle’s patent infringement complaint, filed last April, related to the sale and importation into the US of certain sucralose, sweeteners containing sucralose and related intermediate compounds, and a final determination had been expected on Monday.

The case is significant because if the company loses, other sucralose manufacturers would be much freer to enter the market, which has until now been controlled for the most part by Tate & Lyle.

However, despite Tate & Lyle’s appeal process being finished, the ITC has postponed its decision several times since its initial January target for a final ruling. A company spokesperson told FoodNavigator-USA.com that Tate & Lyle does not know why the ruling has been pushed back and would not speculate on what its postponement implies.

He would only say: “We await the decision of the ITC on 25 March.”

The preliminary determination

Tate & Lyle’s original sucralose product patent was filed in 1976 but it has since expired, opening the product up to competitors. Despite this, the company still owns a host of patent rights to the process for manufacturing the sweetener.

Tate & Lyle’s initial claim accused manufacturers of using its patented processes for making sucralose, but a judge disagreed that any patents had been infringed in the preliminary determination in September.

A final ruling from the six-person Commission would be binding, and close down any prospect of a further appeal.

Manufacturers named in the filing include Changzhou Niutang Chemical Plant, Hebei Sukerui Science and Technology and Guangdong Food Industry.

Meanwhile, a similar case in Illinois Federal District Court, which was put on hold due to the ITC case, could still be reopened even if the Commission finds no infringement.

Patents for competitive advantage

In the last financial year, up to the end of March 2008, sucralose accounted for 21 percent of Tate & Lyle’s operating profit. It has stated that one of the key ways in which it defends its competitive advantage is its patent portfolio which includes process, product form and blend patents.

Globally, the high intensity sweetener market is worth $1.3bn and sucralose is the number one sweetener by value in food, with a 36 percent share. North America is the world’s largest market for high intensity sweeteners and sucralose is the leader with a 48 percent share of the market.

Tate & Lyle markets sucralose, the best-selling low-calorie sweetener in the US, under its Splenda brand.

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