Weetabix seized by New Zealand customs in cereal row

Hundreds of boxes of the product impounded after complaints by rival Weet-Bix

Customs officers in New Zealand have seized and impounded hundreds of boxes of the breakfast cereal Weetabix. File photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times

Customs officers in New Zealand have seized and impounded hundreds of boxes of the breakfast cereal Weetabix after complaints by rival cereal giant Weet-Bix that it could confuse customers.

The pallet of Weetabix - about 300 boxes - arrived in a container load of British goods last week, destined for the shelves of the A Little Bit of Britain grocery store in Christchurch, which largely caters to British expats.

But New Zealand customs officials detained the pallet at the request of Sanitarium, which claimed the cereal infringed its trademark cereal Weet-Bix, which is a staple in many New Zealand homes.

This week, Sanitarium sent a letter to Lisa Wilson, the co-owner of A Little Bit of Britain, saying it would release her cereal shipment if she placed a sticker over the offending Weetabix label once the item was on her shelves, and blanked out the name Weetabix when she sold the cereal online.


Other British stores in the North Island have complied with Sanitarium’s demands, but Wilson has decided to fight the company, which she accuses of “bullying” her small, family-run business.

“They [Sanitarium] walk in and slap an agreement down and it is quite daunting for a very small business . . . they are trying to bully the small guys,” Wilson said.

“They are trying to force us to do what they want because they are a multimillion-dollar company, but we are not willing to bow to Sanitarium’s demands as we don’t believe there is a case of trademark infringement here and we are standing up for that principle.”

Wilson said her grocery store sold about seven boxes of Weetabix a day to mostly British immigrants. She said the look, taste and packaging of Weet-Bix and Weetabix were completely different and could not be easily confused.

She said the suggestion a niche grocery store like hers was trying to steal Sanitarium’s customers was “ridiculous”.

“I don’t feel we should have to cover the word up because they are different words and different customers, and the boxes look nothing alike,” she said.

“They taste different as well. Brits who have grown up on Weetabix like it but Kiwis prefer their Weet-Bix. It isn’t a competition.”


In a statement, Sanitarium’s general manager in New Zealand, Rob Scoines, was unmoved by her argument.

“The Weet-Bix brand is protected by international law and in turn it is often precluded from being sold in other global markets due to the Weetabix trade mark,” he said.

“In this instance, we have offered the importer a solution which enables them to sell their product while protecting our Weet-Bix brand. We are actively seeking their response.”

On social media, the seizure of the shipment of Weetabix drew scorn from British expats and New Zealanders alike, some of whom said they would start boycotting Sanitarium’s products in New Zealand.

The hashtag #freetheweetabix was also widely used by supporters.

"Whatever happened to freedom of choice?" posted Marie Shepherd on Facebook. "We as consumers have the choice of which brand we would like to purchase. Shame on you Sanitarium."

“Preventing access to Weetabix is in no way going to make me buy Weet-Bix, it’s revolting,” posted Lin Holt, also on Facebook.

“In fact I don’t have much time for bullies, so I will not be buying any Sanitarium products at any point in the future!”

Guardian service