Rivalry Between Kosher Certifiers Heats Up


Most of the websites we log onto daily end in a few recognizable strings of letters like dot-com, dot-org, maybe sometimes a dot-edu. Soon you might find yourself browsing a page ending in the letters dot-kosher, but only after two international coalitions of kosher certifiers have fought a pricey, drawn-out dispute over the domain name that’s just the latest iteration of old rivalries.

Last month, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) ruled that OK Kosher, a Brooklyn-based certifier with offices in three continents, may use dot-kosher in the addresses of its websites over the official objection of 11 kashrut agencies, including the world’s largest certifier, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.

The OU and its allies claim that the use of the web address would lead to an unfair competitive advantage in the market, and that no one should own the word “kosher.”

“This could be a big threat to the interests of the other agencies,” said Timothy Lytton, a law professor at Albany Law School who wrote the book “Kosher: Private Regulation in the Age of Industrial Food.” “It could have a huge influence over internet traffic,” he said.

ICANN assigns diverse names and numbers to websites so that no two are the same. Two years ago, it began accepting applications for new “generic top-level domains” (gTLDs), those sequences of letters that come at the very end of web addresses. For years, only a few gTLDs existed, including dot-com, dot-info, dot-net, and dot-org. Now, there are two dozen, and the corporation is creating more. In January 2012, ICANN received 1,930 applications for new gTLDs, including a proposal from OK Kosher for the gTLD dot-kosher.

A dot-kosher domain would show up in the Internet searches of both industrial food manufacturers looking to get certified — that’s where the big money is — as well as kosher consumers seeking information about other issues like kosher regulations and specific products.

But that doesn’t mean nobody can own the name, ruled the expert from the International Chamber of Commerce working under ICANN’s auspices: “There is today no serious ground for the accusation that the Application is designed to confer ‘monopoly status’ on [OK Kosher] over ‘.kosher’ domain names and to permit [OK Kosher] to engage in ‘exclusionary practices.’”

To obtain dot-kosher, OK Kosher paid an $185,000 application fee and will be subject to a $25,000 renewal fee. OK Kosher, whose symbol is a “K” inside a circle, certifies over 400,000 different products from 2,400 companies, according to its website.

The OU certifies over 2,300 companies, including Coca Cola, General Mills and Kraft Foods, with a total of 700,000 labels.

Rabbi Don Yoel Levy, CEO of OK Kosher, says that they purchased the domain name not to have exclusive right to it, but to keep it out of the hands of a businessman they knew was interested in pursuing it.

“We felt it should be in the hands of a kashrus institution,” he said. “We purchased it to make sure it fell into the right hands. We’re willing to share with everybody.”

But Rabbi Moshe Elefant, the OU’s chief operating officer, says OK Kosher is not telling the whole story.

The highest value in ownership over dot-kosher lies in the right to create other, related websites, like “restaurant.kosher,” for example, Rabbi Elefant said.

It was this issue, Rabbi Elefant said, that kept the two factions from reaching an agreement that would have made it unnecessary to submit a formal grievance to ICANN.

OK Kosher wanted to preserve the first rights to twenty of these related domain names, and wouldn’t say which ones, Rabbi Elefant said.

“They did come back to us with a proposal for partnership, but it wasn’t an equal partnership,” Rabbi Elefant said.

When the two opposing camps couldn’t come to terms, lawyers for both sides urged them to find co-signatories for the briefs they would submit to ICANN, Rabbi Elefant said. The OU’s group ended up with 11; OK Kosher says it has 45 backers, including the kosher agencies of Sydney and Melbourne and the chief rabbinates of Russia and South Africa.

A rival agency’s ownership of dot.kosher is not a big threat to the OU’s business, Rabbi Elefant said.

“I think that the OU is, thank God, strong enough to survive,” he said.

The coalition opposing OK Kosher’s ownership paid about $100,000 in fees to ICANN and to its lawyers, Rabbi Elefant said.

Now they have filed for a reconsideration of the ruling but have no sense as to when ICANN will get back to them. Their lawyer has also reached out to OK Kosher’s lawyer, who responded by saying they wanted a written proposal, which will be drafted soon, Rabbi Elefant said.

The debate couldn’t be more modern, but the history of rivalry between companies and individuals who deal in kosher in this country goes way back.

Indeed, OK Kosher was founded in the 1930s when an OU leader left and founded a rival agency, according to Lytton’s book.

The rise of independent kosher certifiers such as OK Kosher and the OU established industry standards and helped reduce gross misconduct, even inviting a level of collaboration between certifiers that continues today.

Even amid this conflict, the opponents have met amicably to discuss other issues in Rabbi Levy’s office, he said. Dot-kosher just didn’t come up.

The dot-kosher debate, Lytton said, is “just an example of the delicate balance between cooperation and competition.”

“It’s a kind of civil war among brothers,” he said.

Lauren Rothman is food and wine editor; Helen Chernikoff is web editor.