It’s time for Thailand to take back the rights to a chilli sauce that is associated with a region of the Kingdom.
The name was usurped in 1979 without any benefit to the original producers or to Thailand. Yet its consumption has grown by leaps and bounds alongside the popularity of Thai cuisine. If you haven’t guessed already, I’m referring to Sriracha chilli sauce, which is now produced in the US from peppers that are not grown in Sri Racha province and may not even be of the same varietal.
The sauce is hugely popular in the US and across most of the world. It is produced by Huy Fong, a Vietnamese company in California, and has taken the US by storm over the past 10 years. There are a variety of spin-offs based on the taste and unique colours – ranging from chocolate to supercar colour schemes. It hurts my Thai pride every time I see the imitation sauce being served in a restaurant and even more to hear the name mispronounced.
Sri Racha-designated products deserve the same protection as any other intellectual property that the West has been using for its products, such as the rights claimed by producers of Champagne in France and balsamic vinegar from Modena, Italy. The names of these products are guarded by the European Union’s Protected Designation of Origin. According to the World Trade Organisation, “A product’s quality, reputation or other characteristics can be determined by where it comes from. Geographical indications are place-names [in some countries also words associated with a place] used to identify products that come from these places and have these characteristics [for example, ‘Champagne’, ‘Tequila’ and ‘Roquefort’].”
According to an article published in the LA Times in February 2015, David Tran “invented” the sauce but never trademarked it. I would like to make two points here: The newspaper did not know that Sri Racha sauce was not invented by David Tran, and he probably did not trademark it because he knew he did not invent it. It was invented in Sri Racha province by a Sri Racha firm. Yet everybody outside Thailand assumes it is a Vietnamese hot sauce.
Thailand joined the WTO in 1995, the same year the agency was set up. Huy Fong sauce was created in 1979, when there was no mechanism in place to stop the company from naming its sauce as such. To get the name back, we need both the private sector and the Thai government to work together.
First, the government must apply to the WTO for the protection of the rights to the sauce under the Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration and Protection) TRIPS. Second, all Sri Racha sauce companies in Thailand should pitch in and distinguish their products from imitation by labelling them “Original Sri Racha sauce from Thailand”, accompanied by a brief explanation of the origin of the sauce. Third, with the popularity of Thai cuisine and a large number of Thai-owned restaurants across the world, the government could ask for their help in promoting the original sauce. Soon lovers of Thai food will rise up to defend the original sauce. Only then will I be able to pick up a bottle of the original Sri Racha sauce without getting all hot under the collar about what should be recognised rightly as a Thai sauce. It’s never too late to claim what is rightly yours in the first place.
ML Saksiri Kridakorn