Bernard Matthews accused by the French government of 'hijacking' turkey market

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Bernard Matthews was accused yesterday of hijacking the turkey market using tactics designed to head off the challenge from high-quality French birds.

Lawyers for the French government claim the Norfolk turkey producer registered the trademark "Label Rouge" knowing it had already been used to denote the best of French produce.

James Mellor, for the French Ministry of Agriculture, claimed in the High Court that shops faced the threat of being told to stop selling French Label Rouge products because Bernard Matthews could claim it was a trademark infringement.

He said: "Bernard Matthews plc appears ready to flex its muscles by asserting its monopoly on the name granted to it by the trademark. The effect on the high-quality end of the trade is obvious – they have hijacked the market."

The French government claimed that Bernard Matthews applied to register the mark in 1990 after his commercial director at the time saw a demonstration about Label Rouge at a turkey industry conference.

A French attempt to have the trademark declared invalid was rejected by the registry in London after hearing evidence from Bernard Matthews plc that it knew nothing of the French scheme and had not been to the conference.

But yesterday Mr Justice Collins agreed that an appeal by the French could go ahead using new evidence which suggests Bernard Matthews plc, the largest turkey producer in the UK, did attend the conference and knew of the French Label Rouge name before 1990.

Label Rouge was created in 1960 by the French to denote high quality food where standards were set out in an official decree. In poultry, it meant free-range birds reared under natural conditions. They have been imported into Britain since the late 1980s.

The judge said: "They [the French government] hope to persuade the court on appeal that Bernard Matthews had no motive to register the mark other than as a spoiling tactic to prevent the development of the market for Label Rouge products."