by Lauren Handel

ATKearney’s recently released third annual report on consumer opinions about “local” food has lots of interesting information relevant to food hubs and anyone who markets local food. One of the findings is that consumers don’t buy local food because they don’t know which products are local. This finding suggests that food hubs and producers could do more with branding and labeling to identify local food. I see this as an opportunity to use trademark law for the benefit of local and regional food systems by creating marks that signify “local” to the relevant community. Such marks can be valuable intellectual property if used and protected appropriately.

For example, a food hub’s trademark (e.g., its name or logo) signifies to consumers not only that products bearing the mark come from the hub but also that those products come from a particular locality. Of course, the hub needs to invest in marketing so that consumers will recognize the mark and know that the hub sources from growers in the area.

Certification marks also are useful tools for identifying local food. Many states own certification marks (such as “Jersey Fresh” and “Certified SC Grown”) certifying that a product is produced in the state. The purpose of a certification mark is to indicate that goods meet certain standards. A food hub could operate a certification mark program for growers in its area to identify their products as local (defined however the hub sees fit) and, perhaps, as meeting other production and/or quality standards.

Another possibility, particularly for cooperatively owned food hubs, is collective marks. A collective mark signifies that a product comes from a member of a group. Through the group’s marketing, consumers will come to recognize that products sold by group members are local.

From a legal perspective, a food hub should secure its rights in its trademarks, certification marks, and collective marks by registering the marks with the US Patent and Trademark Office and by controlling the use of the marks. Registration provides nationwide rights in a mark and helps to prevent other people from using confusingly similar marks. The owners of trademarks, certification marks and collective marks must control the use of their marks or else they risk losing all rights in them. Therefore, it is very important to have licensing agreements with anyone permitted to use a mark and to not allow others to use a mark (or a similar mark) without such a license. Licensing agreements need not be complicated, but they must specify conditions for the use of the licensed mark.

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