The UK-based ingredients giant said that its US subsidiary, Tate & Lyle Sucralose filed the suit yesterday in the US District Federal Court for Central Illinois against a Chinese manufacturing group based in Hebei province as well as six importers of sucralose into the US.
The proceedings allege infringement of patented sucralose manufacturing technology in respect of sucralose manufactured in China.
"We have a robust estate of patents and will, as we have always said, vigorously defend and enforce them, protecting our trade secrets and preventing others from infringing our proprietary rights," said Robert Gibber, general counsel of Tate & Lyle.
While China's rapid industrialisation has forced the country to increasingly adopt global trading standards, intellectual property rights (IPR) have remained a sticking point. According to the People's Daily, China has become the number one target of infringement investigations in the US.
"Frankly speaking, China's creativity of intellectual property is not strong enough," said the paper in an editorial yesterday. "Its IPR holdings do not match its level of economic development."
Indeed, for all its productivity, China's R&D capabilities still lag those of the west. International patent applications, though growing, are less than 1 per cent of the total filed in the US and Europe.
For Tate & Lyle, patent protection is vital. Sales of sucralose, a sugar-derivative that is 600 times sweeter, helped the company to record a first-half profit increase of 59 per cent. Tate & Lyle has enjoyed a virtual monopoly of the sucralose market with its patented Splenda product.
Any infringement of this would therefore represent a real threat to its core business.
The defendants named in the complaint are manufacturers Hebei Sukerui Science and Technology (which also trades as Hebei Province Chemical Industry Academe, Dongfang Biological Chemical Company, Hebei Province Chemical Industry Academe Experimental Factory, Hebei Sukerei Science and Technology, Hebei Sukerei Science and Technology and Shijiazhuang Hecheng Baite Chemical Technology), Hebei Research Institute of Chemical Industry and Hebei Chemical Engineering and Industry Research Institute (which also trades as Hebei Chemical Engineering and Industry Research Institute).
The named importers are Profood International, Forbest International, Beijing Forbest Trade, MTC Industries, JSZ International and Amax Nutrasource.
Tate & Lyle is listed on the London Stock Exchange. In the US its ADRs trade under TATYY. The company operates more than 60 production facilities in 28 countries, throughout Europe, the Americas and South East Asia.
It employs 6,700 people in its subsidiaries with a further 4,500 employed in joint ventures. Sales in the year to 31 March 2005 totalled £ 3.3 billion.