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Companies Argue Over Baked Bean Dish

July 9, 1993

BOSTON (AP) _ In Massachusetts, bean baking has two companies steamed. A Southern company is challenging a Yankee purveyor of the classic New England Dish, making Beantown a bean marketing battleground.

For 30 years, state health labeling rules have defined a baked bean as ″beans, with or without pork, in a sweetened sauce containing no tomato, and one which has been prepared by baking the beans in sauce in open or loosely covered containers.″

In March, Burnham & Morrill of One Bean Pot Circle in Portland, Maine - makers of B&M baked beans - asked the state to determine whether rival Bush Brothers & Co. of Tennessee met the state’s standard. Bush entered the Massachusetts baked bean market in May.

The health department responded to the request by moving to repeal the regulation instead.

At hearings Friday, Peter Harrington, the department’s deputy general counsel, set the tone when he warned, ″each speaker will be limited to one baked bean joke.″

While some found humor in the bean debate, others offered serious arguments. Advocates for the poor said Bush beans are 40 percent cheaper than B&M beans, which sell for about 99 cents a 16-ounce can in Massachusetts.

Consumer advocates said buyers should be able to pick the baked bean they prefer.

But Mark Hostetler, vice president for Pet Food of St. Louis, who represented B&M, went to the dictionary for support.

″Steamed, boiled, stewed or pork and beans are not baked beans,″ Hostetler said, adding that his company’s beans are more costly because the baking process is more expensive.

Last month, after a lobbying effort by school children, Massachusetts named the baked navy bean the official state bean. ″The baked bean is the baked bean as New Englanders know and remember it,″ Hostetler said.

James Bush Ethier, president of Bush Brothers, said Hostetler was full of hot air. He acknowledged that Bush beans are soaked and blanched at one point in the cooking process, but said they are then baked for 50 minutes.

″Pet Inc.’s real problem is that we produce a product that more people prefer at a very competitive price,″ he said.

Ethier maintains his company outsells B&M by more than 2 to 1 in other parts of the country, and that his company has 50 percent of the nation’s baked bean market share.

Bush encountered similar questions about its baking methods from New York state about 18 years ago, but was allowed to continue sales under the baked bean label there, Ethier said.

The Department of Public Health must wait one week to receive written testimony on repealing the baked bean regulation before it makes a decision.

Ethier, whose grandfather started the family bean business in 1908, lamented the bean brouhaha. ″I think the Department of Public Health has more important things to do and I regret that their time has been taken up on this,″ he said.

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