Judge OK’s Vidalia certification

04/13/2006 12:00:00 AM
Chris Koger

(April 13) A judge presiding over a second, and perhaps final, lawsuit of the season concerning Collins, Ga.-based National Onion Labs’ sweetness certification of Vidalia onions has ruled in favor of the controversial labeling process.

Although National Onion Labs owner David Burrell and his company weren’t defendants in the latest court filing, a group of almost two dozen Vidalia growers opposing his certified “sweet” and “extra-sweet” program sought to compel Georgia Department of Agriculture commissioner Tommy Irvin to halt it.

As the official overseer of the Vidalia trademark, the plaintiffs argued, Irvin had the duty to protect the Vidalia name.

But Irvin, who earlier had filed a trademark infringement case against National Onion Labs, said the growers would have put themselves in jeopardy of losing their own trademarked labels had they prevailed. The superior court judge presiding over the case in Atlanta dismissed the growers’ request April 6, three days after Irvin testified.

“Their main testimony was that everybody put certain identifications with the word ‘Vidalia’ (on packaging),” Irvin said after the judge denied the request. “It was very obvious after the testimony was brought into the court that if anybody had any kind of paraphernalia or box with anything other than the word ‘Vidalia’ on it, they couldn’t use them.”

That, Irvin said, would have thrown the industry into chaos, just as growers began shipping for the season. A handful of companies began shipping the week of April 10, a week before the industry’s April 17 inspection date. Any onions shipped before then underwent a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection for maturity, and they had to pass U.S. No. 1 grade standards.

In February, the growers, led by Bland Farms LLC, Glennville, Ga., and Plantation Sweets Inc., Cobbtown, Ga., convinced Irvin to file a trademark infringement case against National Onion Labs, which isn’t licensed to use the Vidalia trademark.

That case was dismissed in March without being served after attorneys for the state and Burrell agreed to restrictions, including the divestment of Vidalia from the lab’s Web site domain name.

Although Burrell and his clients hadn’t halted plans to roll out promotion campaigns focusing on the certified onions, he said the legal issues had drained resources and finances at his company. That Irvin and the state’s attorneys defended their decision to allow the certification gives the process more credence, he said.



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