Maine organic dairy sued over use of kosher trademark

Posted April 16, 2012, at 7:27 p.m.
Last modified April 23, 2012, at 12:01 p.m.
Augusta-based Maine's Own Organic Milk Co. was sued in federal court by the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America over claims the dairy was using the group'’s kosher symbol without proper authorization.
Augusta-based Maine's Own Organic Milk Co. was sued in federal court by the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America over claims the dairy was using the group'’s kosher symbol without proper authorization.

The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America has sued a Maine organic dairy over claims the business was using the group’s kosher symbol without proper authorization. The union wants the court to force the dairy to cease using the symbol and is seeking monetary damages.

According to a lawsuit filed last week in U.S. District Court in Massachusetts, the Orthodox Union claims Maine’s Own Organic Milk Co. — commonly known as MOOMilk — infringed on its trademark, which is a letter “u” in a circle, that signifies a food has been certified as kosher by the group.

On Monday, MOOMilk Executive Director William Eldridge said he hoped to resolve the issue with the union out of court.

“Hopefully we can come to an agreement that satisfies the Orthodox Union. We definitely have the symbol on there without having paid our annual fees — that’s as simple and cut and dried as I can make it,” said Eldridge.

MOOMilk was founded in August 2009 after several small, family organic dairy farms in Maine had their milk supply contracts canceled by a national organic milk processor. The Augusta-based company began operations in October 2009. The dairy takes in milk from farms in Aroostook and Washington counties and processes it at Smiling Hill Farm in Westbrook. It is then distributed in Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

The dairy has had cash flow problems in the past, which, according to the lawsuit, came to bear in the trademark issue. However, last September, MOOMilk secured a round of financing that included $750,000 of private investment capital coupled with $140,000 in loans from the Finance Authority of Maine and the Sunrise County Economic Council.

The company is on stable footing now, said Eldridge.

“If we can put our stupid mistakes behind us, with the forbearance of the Orthodox Union, we can become a profitable company,” he said.

According to the lawsuit, the Orthodox Union provides kosher product certifications. Kosher, the suit noted, means “fit or proper” in Hebrew, meaning the food with the symbol has been prepared in accordance with Jewish dietary laws.

The union, the lawsuit said, is the sole owner of the kosher certification mark — that encircled “u.”

In June 2010, the Orthodox Union learned MOOMilk was using that mark without its knowledge or authorization, the suit said, so it sent an email to the dairy, noting that the use was infringing on a trademark.

The same day the email was sent, David Bright, one of the dairy’s founders and a member of its board of directors, emailed the Orthodox Union a reply, asking for information on using the trademark.

The two groups exchanged information and an initial inspection for Orthodox Union certification was conducted at the processing dairy at the end of December 2010, according to the lawsuit. On Jan. 12, 2011, the Orthodox Union said in the suit, it sent over contracts for annual certification and a bill for $5,500. At the end of the month, Bright responded by email, saying the company was having financial problems and was undergoing restructuring. As soon as MOOMilk’s existing inventory of cartons ran out, it would stop using the symbol, Bright said, according to the lawsuit.

The union was told the dairy would go through that inventory in a matter of weeks, the suit noted.

The Orthodox Union told MOOMilk to stop using the mark immediately. Bright asked for patience as the company was attempting to restructure and later asked if it could pay $2,600 for certification.

In April of last year, according to the suit, Bright told the union by email that the company had secured refinancing and was going to call regarding certification. That never happened, the Orthodox Union indicated in the lawsuit. Last month, the group learned that MOOMilk still was using the trademarked symbol.

On Monday, MOOMilk products bearing that symbol were found for sale at a Portland grocery market.

In the suit, the Orthodox Union said it made clear to MOOMilk that its symbol was a protected trademark.

“MOOMILK’s conduct has injured the Orthodox Union and kosher consumers who rely on the Orthodox Union and the OU mark as an indicator that a merchant using that mark or a product bearing that mark has been supervised, endorsed or approved by the Orthodox Union,” the suit noted.

The suit asks for a preliminary injunction to keep MOOMilk from using the trademark. It also demands that MOOMilk provide details about all of the dairy’s unauthorized use of the mark and give information of “all sales and profits gained from the sale of products, bearing or sold in connection with MOOMilk’s use of an unauthorized OU mark.”

The union is looking for damages “in an amount of three times the amount of the Orthodox Union’s damages or MOOMilk’s profits … for MOOMilk’s intentional and willful use of a counterfeit OU mark.”

MOOMilk’s Eldridge said he hoped the dairy would be able to pay for certification and keep the OU mark on its products.

“It will depend on the OU’s tolerance,” he said.

CORRECTION:

An earlier version of this story inaccurately referred to MOOMilk infringing on a copyright. The company is accused of infringing on a trademark, not a copyright.

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