Lawyers representing British online grocery platform and solutions provider Ocado have criticised a US investigation into its technology and warned a probe “could harm public health” during the coronavirus pandemic.
On Monday (02 November 2020) the US International Trade Commission (ITC) announced plans to open a formal investigation into Ocado’s Smart Platform (OSP) technology following claims from Norwegian robotics firm AutoStore that it had infringed a number of its patents.
Ocado is currently in the process of building 20 automated distribution centres across the USA for supermarket chain Kroger, its largest corporate client, with the first set to open in Ohio early next year and two more to follow later in 2021.
In a submission ahead of the ITC’s decision, lawyers for Ocado said the Covid-19 pandemic “will almost certainly still be an issue in the US” during that timeframe and that halting the process would put Americans unable to go to physical stores during the pandemic at risk.
“With many Americans only leaving their homes for essential items, buying groceries has become more difficult,” they said. “Excluding the OSP… from the US market will harm the ability of US consumers, especially consumers in underserved communities, to obtain healthy and affordable food and also will harm Kroger’s ability to compete with established online grocers.”
The lawyers added that an investigation “could be deleterious to public health, safety and welfare in the US” during the pandemic.
Kroger, which is not a party to the infringement case, filed a similar statement with the ITC, highlighting the potential for job creation during a recession as well as improving access to affordable food.
AutoStore’s civil case against Ocado is now understood to be on hold in the USA until the outcome of the ITC’s investigation is known.
Ocado’s alleged infringement of AutoStore’s automated storage and retrieval systems intellectual property – including the storage system and robots – is claimed by AutoStore to be the foundation on which the OSP was built and on which Ocado’s business today is based.
However, Ocado responded by saying it had not been notified about the legal action and indicated it would fight any such claims.