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Meat Inventors Talk About the Patentability of Food

July 10, 2018

When we think of patents, we often think of new high-tech gadgets or processes. However, with over 10 million patents issued in the US alone, it stands to reason that patents must encompass a wide range of inventions, and they do. Including…well, meat. Last year, NPR spoke with two prominent holders of meat IP – and their stories are worth revisiting. They remind us why patents exist in the first place, and what they do to encourage innovation.

Gene Gagliardi

Gene Gagliardi grew up in rural Pennsylvania, the son of a butcher who sold hamburger and other meat products to restaurants and stores in Philadelphia. By the late 1960s, Gene was running the family business – and it was facing troubles. He told NPR, “Yeah, I’m lying in bed saying, how am I going to save this company? I thought, I’ve got to come up with something innovative, something unique that nobody else has.”

Gagliardi zeroed in on the Philly Cheesesteak, a sandwich for which the nearby City of Brotherly Love is known. He started thinking how difficult it was to eat: The meat is so hard to bite through, it often gets pulled right out of the bread. So Gagliardi dreamed up a process that involved grinding the meat twice, mixing it and molding it into a sandwich-slice shape, freezing it, and tenderizing it.

“It came to me at 3 o’clock in the morning. So, I got up out of bed and went to the plant and tried it,” he recalled. “It tasted great. I said wow, we’re going to make it.” Long story short, Gagliardi named his invention “Steak-Umms,” patented his unique process, and watched it become an explosive success across the U.S.

In 1980, Gagliardi sold his little family business for $20 million. He now has dozens of patents for his creations in markets around the world, including what the world knows as KFC’s Popcorn Nuggets, but which he patented as “Fing’r Pick’n Chick’n.” He came up with the poultry’s unique fanning-out cut one night when his wife asked if he could make a chicken version of Outback Steakhouse’s popular Blooming Onion®.

New, non-obvious, and tasty?

To be clear, Gagliardi’s patents aren’t for the body parts of a cow or chicken, but rather for a method of preparing them as foodstuff and the resulting product. His inventions meet the requirements for obtaining a patent – aka new, non-obvious, and useful.

“And I’ve seen some very unusual patents in my lifetime that I would say, gee, I wonder what’s useful about that,” says Gagliardi’s semiretired patent attorney, Les Kasten. “But I mean, there’s patents for people for walking dogs while holding onto a leash on a bicycle. There’s patents for dumping the remains of a cremated body from an aircraft. I mean, there’s some very unusual patents.”

Kasten’s favorite Gagliardi patent is for a “Method of cutting an elongated meat product or something like that – aka frank fries.” They’re made by slicing hot dogs into strips, breading them, and deep-frying them.

According to Kasten, the USPTO is inclined to grant patents if they meet the statutory requirements — its mission, after all, is not to block patent acquisition, but to promote innovation. Remember, the basic premise is simple: If an inventor discloses the details of an invention publicly in a patent, the government grants them exclusive rights to the invention for 20 years.

Tony Mata’s new steak

Now let’s look at a second story about IP in the meat industry. When Tony Mata first spoke with NPR, he had just invented a new steak and had to be careful not to give too much away:

NPR: What is the name of the muscle the steak comes from?

MATA: I cannot share that with you.

NPR: Can you say what part of the cow it comes from?

MATA: I would rather not.

Only after securing his patent did he reveal to NPR that his patent was for a “method of fabricating a steak from subscapularis and product obtained by such method.” His earlier cryptic behavior, however, makes sense. The financial potential of a new cut of steak — should people like it — is obvious, and Mata was simply trying to protect his IP, in the same way a pharmaceutical company might protect the formulation of a new compound. When he last spoke to NPR, Mata gave them a clue about his newest project: “I’m looking for the chicken wing of the cow. I’m having a great time, and I think I have found it.”

Innovation in its myriad forms

Meat IP may sound a bit odd at first, but innovation is innovation. It can come from anywhere and be about anything. The ability to benefit from one’s creativity allows people like Gagliardi and Mata to keep on inventing.

After more than 50 years in the meat business, Gagliardi is not sure what he’d be doing without the ability to protect his IP. He told NPR he thinks maybe he’d be working for a large meat-producing firm. But instead, thanks to the commercial benefits of his IP, Gagliardi spends his days experimenting away in his “lab,” dreaming up new gustatory delights for carnivores.