Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Thursday, October 5, 2006


Page 15



McIlhenny Operates Fib-Factory On Louisiana’s Avery Island




I’m a fan of “Tabasco Pepper Sauce.” In fact, I carry a miniature Tabasco Sauce bottle in my left coat pocket at nearly all times in readiness for any bland foods that might be imposed upon me.

By chance, at one Italian American Lawyers Assn. meeting, then-State Bar President Karen Nobumoto and I—in sync, as if choreographered by Busby Berkeley—pulled out our respective bottles of the McIlhenny product, amusing those at our table.

One of them was W. Clark Brown, general counsel to the Los Angeles County Bar Assn., who apparently related the occurrence. When I first bumped into LACBA’s new executive director, Stuart A. Forsyth, at some event, he expressed regret at our unscheduled meeting…saying that he had contemplated being prepared by having a Tabasco Sauce bottle to present to me.

Should I ever retire, I’ll probably be awarded a bottle of Tabasco Sauce instead of a gold watch.

Though addicted to Tabasco Sauce, I’ve developed a rather negative view of the outfit that produces it, the McIlhenny Company of Avery Island, La. A couple of years ago, I had intended to write a single column on Tabasco Sauce, but after finding conflicting information on the history of it, I started investigating…and wound up writing a 19-part series on the product which reached the conclusion that the McIlhenny family has built up its company through the manufacturing both of a hot sauce and falsehoods.

In looking a few weeks ago at the Tabasco website, I saw that the hiring by the company of an historian, charged (according to publicity a few years ago) with separating myth from fact in the product’s history, has not produced the promised result. The rendition of Tabasco history that used to be on the website has been supplanted by a Q&A feature with the questions, as well as answers, obviously fashioned by the company. Rather than there being revelations of truths uncovered by recent research, there’s a mangling of facts to cover up the string of historical McIlhenny lies, and there’s the creation of new illusions.

Here’s a partial history of McIlhenny fabrications:

In an 1870 application for a patent on the process for making the hot sauce, company founder Edmund McIlhenny declared: “A drop of bisulphate of lime is added to every ounce received from the press….” That was a lie. Company historian Shane Bernard—in his less guarded moments a couple of years ago, at a time when he apparently thought his services would actually be used to assure accuracy in the McIlhenny accounts of its history—acknowledged that bisulphate of lime was never used in the recipe. Inclusion of that supposed ingredient, he speculated, was a “ruse” to throw off would-be copiers of the sauce.

In a 1905 affidavit in support of a trademark application, John Avery McIlhenny, oldest son of Edmund McIlhenny, swore that his company, and it alone, had used the word “Tabasco” during the past 10 years in connection with a pepper sauce. That, too, was a lie. The affiant knew that various other companies had used that word to describe their pepper sauces, though most had ceased doing so in light of threats of litigation or actual lawsuits. The company in 1906 gained trademark registration under a provision of 1905 legislation which afforded protection to a mark that had been used exclusively for a decade even if it did not meet the normal technical requirements. A competitor pointed to the untruthfulness of McIlhenny’s affidavit and the commissioner of patents in 1909 cancelled the trademark registration, an action that was judicially upheld.

Tabasco bottles today, as they have for decades, portray the sauce as having been on the market since 1868. Not so, Bernard discovered from old family records. Tabasco peppers were planted in 1868 by Edmund McIlhenny for the purpose of commercially marketing a sauce from those peppers, but the marketing did not begin until 1869. That discovery would seem to call for a change in the bottle labels. It would be truthful to re-position “1868” on labels so as to indicate such as the date of the inception of “McIlhenny Co.” Instead, McIlhenny has continued to represent that year as being the date of the product’s founding, ignoring Bernard’s discovery (and no doubt ruing his disclosure of it to this column). It is, of course, a difference of only one year, but the difference nonetheless is one of truth and falsity, and McIlhenny has opted for falsity, rather than going to the trouble and expense of revising its labels.

The Tabasco website seeks falsely to portray that the Tabasco trademark stretches back to 1905, making no mention of the revocation of the 1906 trademark in 1909; mendaciously represents that John Avery McIlhenny stated in his affidavit that his company was the only “lawful” user of the word “Tabasco” during the previous decade when his claim was, in fact, not so restricted; and garbles the law relating to trademarks.


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