Thursday, October 26, 2006

Starbucks Denies Getting Heavy Over Ethiopian Coffee

Picture Courtesy: NOVO Coffee

AFP -- US coffee giant Starbucks said that attempts by Ethiopia to trademark three coffee bean types would be bad economics and bad for Ethiopian farmers.

Starbucks said it had written to the Ethiopian government to seek cooperation on giving geographic designations to the beans.

But it denied having sought to block the trademark application with the US authorities, after British charity Oxfam accused Starbucks of undermining the prospect of substantial new income for Ethiopian coffee growers.

"Starbucks has never filed an opposition to the Ethiopian government's trademark application, nor claimed ownership to any regional names used to describe the origin of our coffees," the chain said in a statement.

But it added: "According to the National Coffee Association of America ... the trademark application is not based upon sound economic advice (and) the proposal as it stands would hurt Ethiopian coffee farmers economically."

Starbucks, which extols its ethical business practices including fair trade with its suppliers in the developing world, has been thrown on the defensive by Oxfam allegations that it had tried to block the trademark bid.

Ethiopia has applied to trademark its most famous coffee names, Sidamo, Harar and Yirgacheffe, enabling it to capture more value from trade, control their use and allow farmers to receive a greater share of the retail price.

Oxfam accused Starbucks of blocking the applications for Sidamo and Harar with the US Patent and Trademark Office by asking the National Coffee Association, which represents US coffee roasters, to oppose approval.

The British charity alleged that opposition by the US coffee giant could deny Ethiopian producers an estimated 47 million pounds (70 million euros, 88.5 million dollars) a year.

Starbucks, however, said it "supports the development of robust geographic certification programs" to put coffee beans from Ethiopia and elsewhere on a par with Bordeaux wine and Florida oranges.

"These systems are far more effective than registering trademarks for geographically descriptive terms, which is actually contrary to general trademark law and custom," it said.

Starbucks added that it was "committed to paying premium prices for all our coffee". In the fiscal year ended last month, it said, it paid an average of 1.28 dollars per pound of coffee, 23 percent above the average New York price.

"Our approach to coffee purchasing, investment in social development projects and microfinance initiatives in coffee growing regions, has been recognized for its leadership within the industry."

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