Glanbia, the listed food ingredients giant, has become embroiled in an international legal row over the provenance of food ingredients it allegedly sells to energy drink manufacturers such as Monster.
A US company, Vitaworks, has filed a lawsuit in the US state of Delaware claiming that Glanbia imports into the US tonnes of the supplement taurine, which it allegedly sources from a Chinese producer that Vitaworks claims ripped off its patent.
Glanbia, which this week asked the US court for more time to file a response to Vitaworks’ claims, said last night it doesn’t comment on legal proceedings, but it said it will “defend our position in relation to this”.
Taurine is a type of acid derivative which is used as a food supplement in infant formula, pet food and, most popularly, energy drinks. The acid was originally isolated from the bile and sometimes the semen of bulls, hence its name.
That history has further influenced the identity of certain consumer brands containing taurine, such as Red Bull, which is uninvolved in the Glanbia case.
Nowadays, taurine isn’t isolated from bulls, but created artificially in laboratories using a chemical process. The world’s biggest taurine supplier is Chinese company, Qianjiang Yongan Pharmaceuticals (QYP), a Glanbia supplier with which Vitaworks is involved in separate legal action. QYP is defending that action.
Vitaworks, a New Jersey company, is run by a Princeton-educated Chinese-American scientist Dr Songzhou Hu, who has studied taurine production processes.
In its lawsuit against Glanbia, Vitaworks says the traditional manufacturing process for the food ingredient is environmentally damaging and wasteful of water. Mr Hu filed a number of US patents for new ways of producing taurine, which he says are much more environmentally friendly and efficient.
He says he travelled to meet QYP executives in China in 2014 and over subsequent years, to discuss licensing his methods. He claims QYP offered him $2.4 million to buy his patent but he refused.
Then, according to the Vitaworks court papers: “Unable to secure the rights to Dr Hu’s invention, QYP copied it.”
He alleges that QYP started using his patented methods and began selling the ingredient to companies such as Glanbia, which in turn began importing it into the US and reselling it on to food manufacturers.
“Glanbia is the leading taurine importer and distributor in the US,” Vitaworks claims, with annual imports of about 6,500 tonnes annually.
The US company alleges that Glanbia sells the substance in pre-mixes to several consumer goods companies, while the court papers specifically refer to an alleged relationship with Monster Energy.
In January, Vitaworks filed a case against QYP, which referred to Glanbia, with the US International Trade Commission, but this was later withdrawn. It also has separate court proceedings open against QYP, and just before Christmas, it filed its lawsuit against Glanbia.
Vitaworks claims the Irish company has “wilfully and intentionally” violated some of its patents by importing QYP taurine into the US. It is seeking an injunction against Glanbia, and treble damages – up to three times the amount assessed for the alleged infringement.
Glanbia has built up a huge operation in the US in the food supplements and nutritionals sector. It has, however, been plagued with patent and class-action lawsuits, which are common in its sector in the US.