Vidalia growers attack ‘sweet’ certification

02/17/2006 12:00:00 AM
Chris Koger

(Feb 17) A group of Vidalia onion growers is again disputing the use of “certified sweet” to market the onions, but instead of targeting the owner of the lab that provides the service, they’re threatening to bring longtime Georgia Department of Agriculture commissioner Tommy Irvin to court.

Almost two dozen growers signed a letter demanding Irvin to stop the certification practice, and that it was his duty and obligation to do so. The letter, received by commissioner Irvin’s office Feb. 8, threatens legal action in 10 days if he doesn’t agree to the growers’ demand.

Irvin on Feb. 16 said his office forwarded the letter to the Georgia attorney general’s office. Russ Willard, spokesman for the attorney general, said the issue falls under the veil of attorney-client privilege, but that his office had given some legal advice to Irvin and continued to research it.

Many of the same growers involved in the dispute were contesting its use last spring, when they successfully obtained a temporary restraining order against David Burrell, owner of National Onion Labs Inc., Collins, Ga. Burrell tests soil and onions for four Vidalia onion growers, some of which are sold by Duda Farm Fresh Foods Inc., Oviedo, Fla., and Keystone Fruit Marketing Co., Greencastle, Pa.

A Georgia superior court judge dissolved that order, opening the door for Burrell’s company to use the certification.

TRADEMARK INFRINGEMENT?

Delbert Bland, president of Bland Farms LLC, Glennville, Ga., is one of the 23 growers whose companies is listed in the letter. Bland said the group hired a trademark expert to research the issue, and he’s certain the extra sweet certification devalues the Vidalia certification outlined in state laws.

“The way I understand it, if you put ‘certified sweet,’ that’s actually taking away from the trademark,” Bland said.

Not only does it affect marketing of the Vidalia crop, Bland said, but growers intend to stop the certification for any trademarked onion, including the Walla Walla sweet onion.

The letter, written by Michael Bowers, a partner at Balch & Bingham LLP, Atlanta, said the use of “certified sweet” and “certified extra sweet” on Vidalia onions threatens the long-term viability of the Vidalia name. Onions carrying the Vidalia name are by nature certified by the state as sweet onions, Bowers wrote.

Other companies disputing the certification include Plantation Sweets Inc., Cobbtown, Ga.; Hendrix Produce Inc., Metter, Ga.; and L.G. Herndon Jr. Farms Inc., Lyons, Ga.



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