Indians Are Boiling Over Rice

Indians are furious at U.S. poachers of a famous name

Go to a cocktail party in Bombay or Delhi these days, and you're sure to hear plenty about the recent national elections. But to get the guests really exercised, just bring up the Great Basmati Scandal. An American company, it seems, has shamelessly ripped off the name of India's best-loved rice, basmati.

That, at least, is how the Indians see it. In mid-February, Indian papers reported that RiceTec Inc., an American rice producer from Texas, had received a U.S. patent for a new variety of basmati rice it had developed. The company wants to call its variety basmati and use the name in conjunction with its rice brands, Texmati, Kasmati, and Jasmati, which it sells in the U.S. They are all Texas-grown versions of basmati, an aromatic rice that originated in the foothills of the Himalayas. Medieval Indian poets wrote ecstatic paeans to the grain, and modern Indians love it.

The Indians say RiceTec's move is like some upstart U.S. winemaker using the word champagne on its label. "They are stealing our heritage," says All India Rice Exporters Assn.'s Anil Adlakha, taking umbrage. "America had not come into existence when our ancestors were growing basmati." More substantively, Indian farmers export $250 million in basmati every year, and the U.S. is a target market. The Indians don't want foreigners to get confused about which basmati they are buying.

Robin Andrews, RiceTec's chief executive, can't see what the fuss is all about. The name's just going to appear on boxes of his product, and he's not trying to stop the Indians from selling their rice, he says. Don't tell that to the Indians. India's Commerce Ministry is mounting round-the-clock research to challenge the patent in a U.S. court, and it's pressing for laws to regulate the use of the basmati name at home, too. This is one curry that could cook for quite a while.

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