Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

Food

Volume 30 Number 1
Fall 2007

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hot sauce bottle

Bioprospecting and the Tale of Melinda's Hot Sauce

Around the globe, big companies are scouring countries for exotic ingredients and purchasing the rights to them—preventing natives who’ve been using the ingredients for generations from earning profits on them. Indiana University Professor of Anthropology Richard Wilk is taking steps to help the people of Belize protect themselves against this act, called bioprospecting.

He’s working on a project to help local people commercialize products before outsiders come in. “I suspect that most of the plants I’ll work with are not going to attract McDonalds, but helping people build up a local infrastructure for commercializing and selling the stuff is the place to start,” he says. “People in Belize have already learned these lessons the hard way.”

The first successfully commercial agricultural export from Belize was Melinda’s Hot Sauce, started by a Belizean woman working with an importer in the United States who is a Belizean American. “She neglected to get the American trademark on the name,” says Wilk. “She thought that he had done that for her, but he had taken it out in his name.”

Once the brand was well established, the importer got the recipe, found somebody to make it more cheaply in Costa Rica, and cut the Belizean woman out of the business completely. “So after spending years and years building the business up and exporting, her marketer basically stole the business from her by taking the trademark,” says Wilk. “The brand was the valuable thing in that case, and it’s taken her 20 years to build it back up.

“Branding is everything in the marketplace today. Branding and intellectual property law are the keys,” says Wilk. “We’re really lucky that here at IU Bloomington— in the law school, the anthropology department, and folklore department—we have people who work on intellectual property issues and copyright. Our students will be able to learn about the ins and outs of why this is so important.”

The Belizean woman’s bioprospecting tale had a happy ending—the woman regrouped and created a new hot sauce, Marie Sharp’s. She now has contracts with Piggly Wiggly and Wal-Mart.

—J.P. and R.P.

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