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Copycat Distillers Spur Tequila Trademark Pushback


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Tequila doesn’t need a worm to be authentic, but some say it does need to be made by a certified process using solely the sap of agave, a thorny succulent plant from the lily family.

Demand for the golden Mexican liquor has tripled in the last 15 years, with the United States buying nearly 80 percent of all exported tequila, according to Tequila.net. Not surprisingly, cheap knockoffs are emerging, many containing not only agave but also bottled water, sugar-cane alcohol and additives that mimic tequila’s traditional flavors. In response, a Mexican tequila industry group is seeking to protect the term agave from use by copycat distillers outside the five Mexican states that have historically produced the drink.

“Generic agave spirits have been gaining an important share of the market,” explains Francisco Soltero, director of the National Chamber for the Tequila Industry. “This is not bad for itself. The problem is the deception to consumers.”

According to Soltero, Mexico’s federal consumer protection agency discovered that 82 percent of liquors that advertise as “agave” don’t comply with official specifications, thereby deceiving consumers who associate agave with quality tequila.

The tequila chamber’s proposal would “protect producers granted with the appellations of origin against unfair competition. It also protects consumers against unfair publicity and deceptive information,” Soltero says. The proposal’s main opposition comes from the Federal Competition Commission, which argues that requiring the certified process would harm small producers.

In the U.S., FDA regulations and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau prohibit false or deceptive brand names that create an impression about a product’s age, origin, identity or similar characteristics. “But that’s not what’s happening here,” explains Melvin Drozen, a food labeling and advertising lawyer at Washington, D.C.’s Keller and Heckman. “If it’s labeled agave and it’s made from the agave plant, it’s not false or misleading,” even if it’s unconventionally produced outside the traditional tequila region.

Agave and tequila aren’t brand names, just as champagne and bourbon are not brand names, Drozen adds. “From a U.S. law standpoint, this should be a nonissue.”

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