Yoakum company accused of selling meat in knock-off packages; official denies claim

Sept. 25, 2011 at 4:25 a.m.
Updated Sept. 26, 2011 at 4:26 a.m.

A lawsuit filed in federal court alleges a Yoakum company's family pack of smoked sausage is being sold in shameful, knock-off packages.

Plaintiff Armour-Eckrich, a billion-dollar slaughterhouse and meatpacking company, filed the lawsuit against Eddy Packing, a Yoakum-based competitor company in July in the Houston Division of the U.S. Southern District of Texas, but the case was transferred to the Victoria division in early September.

Eddy Packing's lawyer strongly denied the claim and called the lawsuit unfounded.

The lawsuit alleges that Eddy Packing committed trade dress, trademark and copyright infringements, breaking federal laws, when it wrongfully copied elements of Armour-Eckrich's distinctive smoked sausage package design as well as the "Eckrich since 1894" design trademark, indicating the date when company founder Peter Eckrich opened his first small meat market in Fort Wayne, Ind.

Eddy Packing is accused of targeting the sales of these plagiarized packaged goods to existing distributors and consumers of Eckrich smoked sausage products.

Ted Lee, a San-Antonio-based attorney for Eddy Packing, said the allegation of similar packaging designs is not valid.

"There is a world of difference between the two designs," Lee said. "You hate to say a suit is frivolous, but I've seen a lot of trade dress cases over the years, and this does not appear to be a strong case."

Both Carl Pierce, the Philadelphia-based attorney for the plaintiff, and an Armour-Eckrich spokesperson declined to comment on the case per policies of not commenting on ongoing litigation. Armour-Eckrich's principal place of business is in Lisle, Ill.

Jonmor Investments, owner of the Eckrich trademark, is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit.

Ronald Beeman, president of Eddy Packing, did not return messages left seeking comment.

A form of intellectual property, trade dress is a legal term referring to the visual appearance of a product or its packaging including its size, shape, color, design and texture, distinctive graphics, configurations and marketing strategies.

It also may refer to the manner in which a product is wrapped, labeled, presented, promoted or advertised.

Between May 2010 and May 2011, the plaintiff sold about $110 million worth of smoked sausage incorporating the trade dress for its bulk sausage product, which was created in August 2009, and about $330 million worth of meat products using closely related trade dresses, for which the color of the center ribbon was varied to distinguish different product ingredients.

The Eckrich trade dress features unique elements, making it readily identifiable by consumers as a product originating from or associated with the Eckrich brand, the lawsuit contends.

"Consumers readily identify the Eckrich Trade Dress as identifying a product of the highest quality that originates from a single source," the lawsuit said.

Until recently, Eddy Packing's family pack of smoked sausage featured the EDDY trademark on top of an image of the state of Texas in a blue and white color pattern.

Lee said Eddy Packing eliminated the state graphic so Eddy Packing could better compete in the national market.

However, the plaintiff contends the change was made to cause confusion among existing Eckrich customers.

On May 31, counsel for the plaintiff sent a letter to the defendant informing them of the alleged copyright infringement.

On June 2, counsel for the defendant responded, arguing there was no infringement, citing differences in colors, names, fonts, words, layout and banners of the two packages.

"Eddy Packing's actions have been deliberate, willful and intentional, undertaken in bad faith and with the intent of trading on the goodwill and reputation of Armour-Eckrich and its distinctive Eckrich Trade Dress with full knowledge of and in conscious disregard of Armour-Eckrich's rights," said the lawsuit.

The plaintiff is seeking to restrain Eddy Packing from using any of the plaintiff's trade dress elements alone or in any combination as well as any damages sustained.

Eddy's Lee said the two companies have discussed whether it would be easier to switch the package design rather than go through an exhaustive legal fight.

However, no decision has been made.

"They are talking," Lee said of Eddy and Armour-Eckrich.



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