The Union of Orthodox Congregations of American is the largest kosher certification agency in the world with its hekhsher (kosher certification symbol) on over 500,000 products worldwide. The OU, as it is commonly called, has been unrelenting in its protection of its famous trademark. As the most recognized kosher symbol, many food manufacturing businesses (especially in the Far East) think that the OU symbol is a generic kosher code and place it on their product without permission. As Sue Fishkoff reported in her book Kosher Nation, the OU employs a large legal department whose mission is to locate violations of usage of the OU symbol anywhere in the world, issue a cease and desist order, and file a suit if there’s no compliance.
In the past week I’ve read two articles about ongoing lawsuits filed by the Orthodox Union against companies using the OU symbol. Watching Miguel Cotto dance around the ring last night with his OU tattoo in full sight, I considered if this might be a trademark violation on the radar screen of the OU’s legal department.
The Orthodox Union recently sued a Maine organic dairy for trademark infringement. The OU claims that Maine’s Own Organic Milk Company L3C used the OU trademark without authorization. The Orthodox Union said it initially contacted the dairy about its unauthorized use of the hekhsher in June 2010 and the dairy, known as MOOMilk, applied for certification that month and received an initial inspection, but the dairy never paid the fees and continued to use the kosher symbol on its cartons without authorization. The Orthodox union said it’s harmed by the unauthorized use of the mark, and that kosher consumers are likely to be confused and misled when they see it on MOOMilk’s products.
That’s the most common example of violation against a kosher symbol. But the OU also has to deal with companies using the OU symbol as an innocent mistake. Also this week it was reported that a coffee roastery in New Zealand, Christchurch’s Underground Coffee, is being sued for using a logo that is similar to the OU’s registered trademark. Underground Coffee has been using that logo since 1998, but it only became known to the Orthodox Union recently when Starbucks stores in New Zealand began selling the product.
The OU claims that the coffee’s logo is “likely to deceive or cause confusion” to consumers. Apparently many travellers to New Zealand asked local rabbis if Underground was kosher and others had reported it to the union as an infringement.
There’s no confusion as to Miguel Cotto’s kosher status and it’s entirely possible that the Orthodox Union appreciates the free publicity. But who knows what the OU legal department will think of Cotto’s tattoo, which could be considered an unauthorized use of a registered trademark.
Legal experts: What do you think?