Anheuser-Busch alleges MillerCoors stole recipes

The corn syrup war started with a snarky Bud Light Super Bowl commercial by Anheuser-Busch in February.

By Robert Channick / Chicago Tribune

In the latest legal salvo over the use of corn syrup in beer, Anheuser-Busch claims MillerCoors “misappropriated trade secrets” by obtaining full recipes and a technical manual for making its Bud Light and Michelob Ultra brews.

An employee at Anheuser-Busch’s Cartersville, Georgia, brewery allegedly shared the recipes in February with a MillerCoors employee, according to a counterclaim filed Thursday by Anheuser-Busch in a seven-month-old federal lawsuit.

Anheuser-Busch is seeking an injunction to prevent MillersCoors from “accessing, using or disclosing” the Bud Light and Michelob Ultra beer recipes, according to the filing in federal court in Madison, Wisconsin.

“We will enforce our right to uncover how high up this may reach in the MillerCoors organization,” the company said in a statement Thursday. “We take our trade secrets seriously and will protect them to the fullest extent of the law.”

The corn syrup war started with a snarky Bud Light Super Bowl commercial by Anheuser-Busch in February claiming that Miller Lite and Coors Light were made with corn syrup. MillerCoors defended itself first with an ad campaign of its own and shortly thereafter, filed a false advertising lawsuit against Anheuser-Busch.

Now the battle has taken a darker turn into full-blown beer espionage, with Anheuser-Busch alleging MillerCoors obtained the recipes with the full knowledge of top executives.

The Anheuser-Busch employee “is no longer with the company,” Anheuser-Busch said Friday.

MillerCoors spokesman Adam Collins issued a statement Thursday night addressing the alleged misappropriation of trade secrets.

“MillerCoors respects confidential information and takes any contrary allegations seriously, but if the ingredients are a secret, why did they spend tens of millions of dollars telling the entire world what’s in Bud Light?” Collins said. “And why are the ingredients printed on Bud Light’s packaging in giant letters?”

Text messages obtained by an Anheuser-Busch and included in the heavily redacted counterclaim allegedly reveal a possible motive for the beer espionage: searching for ingredients to use in a retaliatory ad campaign by Chicago-based MillerCoors.

“I got a few calls already from (corporate) folks asking about Bud Light, we must be prepping a retaliation,” the MillerCoors employee said in one of the text messages included in the filing. The message was dated Feb. 4 — the day after the Super Bowl ad ran.

The Bud Light campaign launched with a Super Bowl TV commercial where a mythical medieval king leads a quest to return corn syrup mistakenly delivered to his castle to Miller Lite and Coors Light.

In March, MillerCoors sued Anheuser-Busch, looking to “set the record straight” regarding its use of corn syrup as a fermenting sugar.

Last month, Bud Light was ordered by a Wisconsin federal judge to stop using the label “No Corn Syrup” on its packaging. The ruling extended a May injunction barring Bud Light from running certain TV, billboard and print advertising that suggested Miller Lite and Coors light contained corn syrup in its finished product.

In its statement Thursday, MillerCoors fired yet another salvo at Anheuser-Busch over the corn syrup advertising dispute.

“As for their tired claims about corn syrup, the same residual elements they are talking about are also found in Bud Light and Michelob Ultra,” Collins said. “If this is their argument, it’s no wonder they have lost three rulings in this case already.”

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