The Great New Zealand Marmite Fight

The adverts claim that you either love it or hate it. One British expat living in New Zealand is so much in the love camp that he’s willing to fight for his right to have access to the yeasty spread.

Haters might not understand such a fuss being made about the controversial condiment (it’s not jam after all) but ever since it was first manufactured in 1902 lovers haven’t been able to get enough of it. The company’s fan club motto gives some indication of just how strongly its supporters feel: ‘Eat Marmite? You don’t just want to eat it, you want to bathe in it, wallow in it like a hippo in mud, slather yourself from head to toe and wrap yourself in bread and butter…’ (There’s more but you get the idea).

On average 50,000,000 jars are made in Britain every year, but only 15% of that number gets sent overseas. Demand in Europe is particularly low and with supplies so often limited it’s not surprising that British expats have been known to order it online by the caseload. And it’s always been important to Brit’s abroad; during the First World War British soldiers were issued marmite as part of their essential rations.

Now you can even get Marmite cookbooks, teaching you how to incorporate the iconic flavour into dishes like Marmite Corn Fritters and Panini with Marmite Tapenade. Yum… But such cookbooks aren’t much use if you can’t get hold of a jar of Marmite in the first place. British man and food importer Rob Savage is facing just such a dilemma after the 2,000 jars of Marmite he’d ordered from home were seized by New Zealand Customs because of ‘product infringement’.

New Zealand has been manufacturing its own version of the yeast-based spread for over ninety years but British consumers haven’t been overly impressed by the recipe used down-under. Like Australia’s Vegemite, connoisseurs find the flavour of New Zealand’s marmite too mild. Although Mr Savage has been importing British Marmite and selling it to fellow expats for nearly a year, the company responsible for manufacturing New Zealand Marmite, Sanitarium, has now decided that it infringes on their trademark. For the past two weeks Custom’s has prevented Mr Savage from accessing his supplies of the product despite there still being a serious shortage of Sanitarium brand Marmite.

Back in 2011 Sanitarium had to shut down its main Marmite production line after the Christchurch factory was damaged in an earthquake.

By March 2012 the company’s stocks had run out and the production line issues had yet to be fixed. As supermarkets began running dry ‘Marmageddon’ took hold of the nation. People were so desperate to get their hands on the ‘black gold’ that they were buying jars already opened and listed as ‘used’ from auction sites like TradeMe.

Consumers were advised to ‘spread sparingly’ and New Zealand’s Prime Minister even commented on the crisis.

As it now seems that production will not restart until October at the earliest is it any wonder that Custom’s harbouring his supplies is making Rob Savage?

Mr Savage is insistent that the ‘completely different’ British product couldn’t be considered as breaching the Sanitarium trademark and estimated that the jars being withheld were worth roughly £6000.

He was quoted by the Telegraph as saying: ‘The jar is different, the labelling is different and the product is completely different. British people ask me to bring the Marmite in [...] Kiwis don’t like British Marmite. There’s no clash and the two products are totally distinguishable [...] The jars we imported were to commemorate the Queen’s jubilee; they’re the jars with the Union flag on and actually say Ma’amite, not Marmite. Nobody can possibly confuse these two products by sight, tough, smell or taste. It really is a joke’.

It might be a joke, but for expat Marmite addicts it’s not very funny.

The general manager of Sanitarium, Pierre van Heerden, claimed that since June of this year Custom’s had been vetting imported goods to ensure Sanitarium trademarks were not being infringed. When questioned about this issue he gave the following statement: ‘This is a service New Zealand Customs makes available to any organisation seeking to protect a registered business trade mark and prevent potential trade mark infringements. Many organisations have a similar arrangement in place to protect their intellectual property in the case of imported goods [...] Sanitarium encourages competition and is not opposed to the products under question. Our actions are simply designed to protect the trademarks that we have invested in developing over the last 80 years. We would note that the English Marmite product is already freely available in New Zealand under the ‘Our Mate’ trade mark, so English expats can enjoy the ‘taste of England’ without contravening New Zealand-owned trademarks.’

Mr Savage responded by saying the ‘Our Mate’ doesn’t taste like Marmite so buying that product is not a solution to the issue.

The fate of Mr Savage’s Marmite still hangs in the balance.

Some might say that we should urge expat Briton’s to stop eating toast in protest against this condiment injustice. Others might say that we shouldn’t rest until the Marmite is freed. Conspiracy theorists might argue that his is all just a complex plot devised by Haters…

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