Malaysia – Protecting The National Cuisine

The Malaysian Tourism Minister’s statement that Malaysia intends to stake its claim on recipes synonymous with the country’s identity, has sparked controversy among the public. Reaction is especially high in Singapore, where people dispute the origins of certain dishes Malaysia intends to claim.

The Minister later said that Malaysia has no intention to patent local food: “We have to claim ownership on some dishes but I never said we must patent them.”

This summarizes the state of IP awareness in Malaysia – confusion and ignorance. The Minister intends to claim proprietary ownership of the recipes, but maintained that the ownership will not mean domination of the product.

However, she was right in saying that Malaysia has no intention to patent the food, as it is impossible to patent food, although the Malaysian Patents Act 1983 does not actually prohibit the registration of a patent of a recipe. With the amount of variation and combination possible to prepare a dish, it is unlikely that it can be patented successfully.

This raises the question: how do we protect a recipe?

Lawyers and food consultants commented that it would be difficult for any country to lay claim to a certain dish. Generic names such as “chicken rice” would be rejected by the patent office. It is possible to stake a claim to a dish by geographical indication (GI) – Hainan, for example, can stake a claim for Hainanese chicken rice as it originated there.

This, however, does not offer any protection at all for recipes. The rationale is the same as patents. The amount of variety available for a dish will make it impossible for one to pin-point exactly the description of a dish which would enable it to be used as a GI.

The most appropriate way to protect a recipe is by a trade mark. Trade marks are not new in the food business.  Trade marks like Coca-Cola, McDonalds and Subway have in fact gained international recognition, resulting in an indirect dominance of the recipes that they provided. Brands like Kentucky Fried Chicken, The Manhattan Fish Market and Old Town White Café do indicate the uniqueness of the dishes they provided, and the successful registration of the trade marks has resulted in what the Minister actually wanted – ownership of the dishes.

In light of this, it would be interesting to see how Malaysia goes about branding these famous dishes.