Patent infringement lawsuit filed against Gruma

by Eric Schroeder
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LINCOLN, NEB. — NUtech Ventures has filed a patent infringement lawsuit against Gruma Corp. and Azteca Milling, L.P. NUTech Ventures is a Lincoln-based non-profit corporation that negotiates and executes licenses and options related to the University of Nebraska’s technology, as well as files patents on behalf of faculty, staff and student inventors.

According to the July 5 filing in the U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska, NUtech has claimed that Gruma and its subsidiaries violated a patent issued to NUtech researchers David S. Jackson and Deepak Sahai in 2002.

The patent is for a novel process (known as “enzymatic nixtamalization”) for producing flour and dough from grains such as corn.

“In the traditional nixtamalization process, the corn kernel is cooked and steeped in an alkaline solution containing lime for a long period of time,” the July 5 filing said. “This traditional nixtamalization process requires large amounts of water and energy, generates excess wastewater, and causes corn solids loss. The ‘828 Patent’s enzymatic nixtamalization process steeps and digests the corn kernel in an enzyme solution containing a protease enzyme. As a result, the enzymatic nixtamalization process reduces the alkaline wastewater and corn solids loss, minimizes waste treatment and disposal costs, and conserves water and energy. The dough prepared from the flour produced from the enzymatic nixtamalization process exhibits good sheeting and texture characteristics and can be processed to produce food products using conventional food processing equipment.”

NUtech alleges in the filing that Gruma is using similar processes in one of more of its corn flour products sold under the Mission and Maseca brands, while Azteca is using the processes for one or more of its instant corn masa flour products sold under the Maseca brand.

According to the filing, Gruma filed for several patents between October 2004 and June 2007 that described the same patent issued to NUtech’s researchers in 2002.

“Gruma’s patent applications describe and claim a solution to be used as a processing aid to digest whole corn kernels, which contains certain enzymatic ingredients, including an endoprotease enzyme,” the filing said. “In addition to digesting the corn kernel in a solution containing an endoprotease enzyme, Gruma’s patent applications describe and claim other steps involved in enzymatic nixtamalization for manufacturing instant corn masa flour, including washing the digested corn kernel, drying the processed corn, and milling the corn into flour.

“These steps or their equivalent, together with the use of protease enzymes to digest corn kernels, are claimed in NUtech’s ‘828 Patent. The processes for manufacturing instant corn masa flour disclosed, used and claimed in the aforementioned Gruma patent applications read on each and every element of one or more claims of NUtech’s ‘828 Patent.”

Gruma officials have not commented on the filing.

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