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Tropicana's Patent on Juice Blend Technology Is Rejected

Food: The producer's practice of mixing orange varieties is not exclusive to the firm, U.S. ruling says.

September 11, 2002|From Reuters

The world's biggest maker of chilled orange juice, PepsiCo Inc.'s Tropicana Products, has been dealt a setback by a U.S. Patent office ruling that technology used to blend several types of oranges is not exclusive to the company.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office said it rejected a November 2000 patent awarded to Tropicana that allowed the juice producer to blend four special orange varieties when making its Tropicana Pure Premium juice.

Florida Citrus Mutual, which challenged Tropicana's right to the patent, said the juice producer's practice of blending orange varieties was already common in the juice industry.

Tropicana said the patent ruling was expected and the company will appeal.

If it is forced to relinquish its patent, any orange grower would be able to raise the four special orange varieties and sell them to competitors such as Coca-Cola Co.'s Minute Maid brand. The current patent allows growers to sell to only one juice producer, Tropicana.

Early research to develop the special oranges was funded by local growers and the University of Florida. Tropicana said the research focused on developing table fruit, not as a special juice blend, which the company said it financed.

The federal patent office said Tropicana will continue to hold the patent during the appeals process.

"The patent remains valid, if they go the whole route, until one or more of the claims are invalidated," said Bridget Quinn, spokeswoman for the patent office.

The special variety of oranges, which were brought to Florida from Brazil in the early 1900s, have characteristics similar to Valencia oranges, which have a sweeter taste and a more vibrant color.

The special varieties also ripen earlier in the season, between September and December.

In order to maintain flavor, other juice producers currently store Valencia fruits from the past growing season and blend them with less flavorful early-season oranges.

The right to blend the four varieties of oranges is a major coup for Tropicana in the not-from-concentrate juice industry, the fastest growing segment of the orange juice market.

In dollars, Tropicana estimated it holds 34% of the chilled orange juice market, which includes both concentrate and not-from-concentrate products.

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