San Miguel battles Magnolia trademark holder to sell in US

By: Victor C. Agustin
December 26, 2012

The San Miguel Group is battling a Filipino-American food manufacturer in California, which had beaten it in securing an identical Magnolia trademark in the United States, in order to continue selling Philippine-made Magnolia dairy products in US stores.

The Central District Court in Los Angeles has become the battleground between San Miguel Pure Foods and Ramar International, the second infringement round after the two companies had clashed in the 90s.

This time, San Miguel filed a declaratory relief action for trademark non-infringement against Ramar International, after the latter sent a cease-and-desist letter against the Philippine conglomerate for bringing in and selling Manila-made butter-margarine-and-cheese products.

In its counter-suit, Ramar not only claimed that the Philippine-made products were infringing on Ramar’s trademark, but that they also “fall well below the quality level and standards” of Ramar’s Magnolia.

“Unlike Ramar’s Magnolia dairy products, the infringing products…are not made with real California milk…(but) made with mellorine, a sweetened frozen food product which substitutes animal or vegetable fat for real milk,” Ramar maintained.

San Miguel, on the other hand, argued that Ramar’s two Magnolia trademarks covered only ice cream and meat products, and not the cheese spread, cream cheese and Chocolait lines that San Miguel had been shipping into the United States.

San Miguel and Ramar, a Philippine handicrafts importer in the late ’60s until it diversified into the frozen food manufacturing business, had earlier gone to court over the same trademark issue in the mid-1990s.

But San Miguel, despite owning the Magnolia brand in the 1920s when the Philippines was still a US colony, withdrew the infringement suit also in Los Angeles after Ramar obtained federal registration from the US Patent and Trademark Office on the Magnolia mark as the litigation was underway.

It was also about the same time, 1996, when San Miguel sold its milk and ice cream business under the Magnolia brand to Nestle, with a non-compete clause that lasted until 2003.

Ironically, even Ramar International does not hide the Philippine origins of its Magnolia brand.

“With the growing Asian market in California and the United States, it was clear to the family (of Ramon and Maria Quesada) that there was an increasing demand for high quality, authentic, ethnic foods. From there, the idea was to take the exotic fruit flavors of the Philippines and Asia and turn them into a premium ice cream,” Ramar recounted in its website.

“Thus, Magnolia Ice Cream® was reborn in America.”

Following the trial, a jury earlier this month found that San Miguel and its US distributors did not willfully infringe on Ramar’s Magnolia mark, prompting Ramar to file last week a motion and to instead ask Judge R. Gary Klausner for judgment as a matter of law.

Klausner will issue a decision in open court on January 21.