To Tea or Not to Tea: Securing Trade Mark Protection for Rooibos Tea

What do you think of when someone mentions rooibos tea? Is it the abundant health benefits, the taste of home, a good conversation on a balcony when it may still be a tad too early for a glass of wine? No, it is probably the intricate legal battles that erupted behind the now world-renowned tea… yes, that’s it, right? 

Rooibos tea is exclusively farmed in the Western Cape of South Africa and the distinctive aspalathus linearis plant requires very specific conditions to grow successfully. Conditions which the Western Cape and more specifically the Cederberg region provide. In the 1900s, Pieter Nortier and a partner developed the methods and processes to germinate the plant and brew the well-known drink that is now more of a household name than ‘Cremora’. In 2021, The Rooibos Council of South Africa has secured a Protected Designation of Origin mark from the European Union and I am certain that Pieter Nortier would be doing backflips, if he was– alive today.

You have probably noticed the little yellow and red sticker on your tea box during your monthly ‘FreshPak’ run. This, my friends, is the coveted Protected Designation of Origin mark, resulting in exclusivity for Zaffa production. This article is more an expression of pride and pays homage to South Africans’ ability to keep on fighting the good fight, no matter the size of the opponent. This mark practically ensures the indefinite protection of this product as being ‘Proudly South African’.

Trade marks in general are a crucial element of any commercial endeavour. It acts as a badge of origin and ensures customers that the product or service they are presented with stem from one unwavering source. In effect, a trade mark identifies the goods or services of a particular company or person. Similarly, there are Geographical Indications, similar to trade marks, however, these marks identify the goods or services of a particular place, rather than a person or company.

There are three main forms of Geographical Indications, one of them being a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO). A PDO is registrable for food, agricultural products and wines and will only be registrable for products that have the strongest links to the place in which they are made. What this means is that every part of the production, processing and preparation must take place in a particular region or area.

Tell me – what does Feta cheese, Champagne and Prosciutto have in common? Each product has that little red and yellow PDO sticker. This now explains why these products are always of a similar quality, taste and standard, no matter where they are purchased. The same goes for Parmigiano Reggiano, Black Forest Ham, Kalamata olives, and the list goes on. What this means for South Africa is that no one, save for those in a designated area, producing rooibos tea in a documented and specific manner, is allowed to link the designation ‘rooibos tea’ to their brand, irrespective of how perfect their recipe is. 

Rooibos tea has provided a clear case of why it is so important to secure a PDO and why trade marks in general are so important. It is well known that companies in the United States and France have attempted to register the ‘rooibos’ brand, which they would get away with, seeing that the registration of Afrikaans dialect in a non-Afrikaans speaking country could avoid the bar of registering descriptive trade marks – and they actually did get away with such registrations. Lucky for us, the PDO is like a draw four card in the hand of a kid playing ‘Uno’, meaning that everyone is barred from registering the ‘rooibos’ brand and slapping it on any random tea with red food colouring in it. It thereby not only protects every student’s favourite procrastination drink but also protects the name from being tarnished by inferior quality products.

Without the PDO in place, the bespoke South African tea would most definitely crumble under the weight of mass production and international competition, rendering the South African product and the actual methodology behind rooibos tea, nearly obsolete. The Rooibos Council of South Africa, however, fought tooth and nail to secure this PDO and was officially awarded its certification this year. As a result hereof, we can sleep soundly at night knowing that the cup of tea which just quenched our thirst is from a specific source and produced subject to strict guidelines, otherwise it would most definitely not have a reference to ‘rooibos’ anywhere.

This article acts as a salute to South Africa for securing a PDO, but what I am really hoping for, is that you recognise how important it is to protect your brand, irrespective of whether it is a general trade mark for your business or a Geographical Indication. This form of intellectual property secures indefinite protection for the proprietor and guarantees that your winning recipe remains protected under your banner. If you would like to talk about anything related to trade marks, or if you require assistance with registering your brand, then you are welcome to give our trade mark department at Dommisse a call.

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