Fat chance for rival chip

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SPURRED by the success of sugar-free Coke and non-alcoholic beer the Belgians have invented the diet-chip. But Belgium is a divided country and no one can decide whether this six-sided miracle of potato engineering is a Wallonian frite or a Flemish friet. The battle is so bitter the courts have had to arbitrate.

Why did no one think of it before? Chips are only unhealthy because they soak up fat, but the larger the surface area the quicker they fry and the less fat they absorb. Sketching designs on the back of an envelope, Giuseppe Bonsignore chanced on a solution that could make his fortune - the hexagonal chip - and in 1987 he patented his invention, or rather the cutters and accessories necessary for its perfection. Belgians, for whom chips are not so much a fast-food as a treasured part of the national heritage, recognised Mr Bonsignore's contribution to society by awarding him the Inventor's Fair silver medal.

Life in Wallonia for Mr Bonsignore glowed with promise as he made preparations to launch his discovery on Europe at large. But elsewhere in the country, in northern Flanders, Robert Stroobandt was calling a press conference to nominate himself the One and Only True Originator of the Six-Sided Chip. He had not patented the means but immortalised the end product by registering 'frite hexagonale' as a trade- mark. And stealing a march on Mr Bonsignore, he had even gone so far as to arrange commercial backing for his method from a multinational food-processing company.

Now the fat was really in the fire. In 1990 Mr Bonsignore took Mr Stroobandt to court (in Wallonia). It is a mark of how seriously the complaint was taken that the commercial tribunal took three years to reach its verdict, delivered this week.

The tribunal found against Mr Stroobandt, declaring that his trademark constituted an infringement of Mr Bonsignore's patent and moreover showed 'very bad grace'. Mr Stroobandt was fined 5m Belgian francs ( pounds 500,000) and warned off further promotional gimmicks. Failure to comply will cost him another 10,000 Belgian francs a day.

Mr Bonsignore might now sue for commercial loss. Mr Stroobandt is thought to be perfecting a non-fattening mayonnaise.