Broccoli for the masses

Patents uprooted: Federal judge sows seeds of competition in case of Hopkins claim to health discovery.

November 02, 2001

EAT your broccoli sprouts and don't worry about whether they're legal. They're good for you, as taxpayer-funded studies have demonstrated. Now a federal judge in Baltimore has cleared the way for broccoli sprout growers to continue to sell their "health food" just as they did for years before Johns Hopkins lawyers secured U.S. patents on the vegetable.

Researchers recently getting the patents didn't physically alter the broccoli seeds, invent a new variety or change the process of germination, District Judge William M. Nickerson Jr. ruled.

They claimed the discovery that broccoli sprouts raise the body's natural defense mechanisms that may prevent the development of cancers. That wasn't enough for a patent blocking other growers from marketing their sprouts, the judge decided.

Scientists have been turning up evidence for years that antioxidants found in cabbage-family vegetables can help fight cancer. The early sprout studies showed higher concentrations of a beneficial compound than is found in cooked, mature broccoli.

Intricacies of patent law, which can reward discovery and not just invention, may determine the final legal outcome. While you can't patent nature, modern biotechnology advances are rapidly changing patent law. (New plants weren't even patentable before 1930.)

Broccoli isn't everyone's dish. Legions of children and a recent president have loudly registered their dissent. But broccoli sprouts are a healthy choice, and choice is healthy for the marketplace, too.

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