The battle for the lucrative kosher consumer market took a strange twist last month. Shortly after the end of Passover, Jewish shoppers were shocked to find Trader Joe's markets had eliminated their selection of Empire kosher chicken, substituting instead the company's own organic, nonkosher chicken.
"The Empire chicken people are no longer able to supply our needs," said Pat St. John, vice president of marketing for Trader Joe's West Coast corporate office. "We don't want to be out of kosher chicken, however, so we will be replacing Empire with other kosher chicken, probably within the week."
St. John said the new supplier for the West Coast will be Rubashkin's Aaron's Best out of Iowa.
Managers at the Trader Joe's in West Hills and West Los Angeles attributed the change to Empire short-weighting their products. One manager said that packages Empire marked as containing 3 pounds of chicken were found, when weighed at the store, to contain only 2.5 pounds.
"There were some instances where Trader Joe's had received some misweighed product," said Harry Deedy, vice president of sales for Empire Kosher, adding that the problem was caught and corrected immediately. He said that the incident created some product shortages at West Coast stores, but that "it was not his understanding" that Empire products were going to be pulled permanently from Trader Joe's.
"We are still in Trader Joe's stores in the Midwest and on the East Coast," Deedy said.
Empire Kosher President and CEO Rob Van Naarden said the company would work hard with Trader Joe's to see that Empire poultry products were reinstated. He said the company has not had any problems with other grocers.
"We ship over 50 percent of the kosher chicken and 90 percent of the kosher turkey in the United States, and you can't do that unless you are building a lot of customer care," Van Naarden told The Journal.
"I have never had a problem with Empire, and I have not had any complaints [about the brand]," said Daryl Schwarz, owner of Kosher Club and a former distributor for Empire.
St. John said she had not received any direct complaints from consumers, and an inquiry to the Los Angeles County Department of Environmental Health, which handles food issues, confirmed that there were no complaints against Empire posted within the past two years of records for Trader Joe's markets.
As public concerns over food nutrition and safety grows, kosher chicken producers have found their fowls more and more in demand, not just among kosher-observant Jews. The potentially vast market has prompted increased competition, and increasing focus on the quality -- and in this case, the quantity -- of the products themselves.
In September, Whole Foods Market stores stopped carrying Empire products because of its use of antibiotics and animal byproducts in the feed, according to Whole Foods meat coordinator Mike Hacaga. However, according to Empire's Web site, the company's chickens are grown "naturally, without any growth promotants, such as steroids, hormones or artificial ingredients."
Deedy said that, while not "free range," Empire poultry is raised as "free roaming" within a climate-controlled space, and not confined to cages.
Empire products can still be found at Southland Gelson's, Ralphs and Vons. Fresh chicken at these locations are weighed by the stores themselves.
Empire Kosher, located in Mifflintown, Pa., was founded in 1938 and is one of the largest processors of kosher poultry. Although it presently faces competition from other kosher processors, such as Wise Kosher (which sells certified organic grain-fed, free-range chickens) and Canada's Chai Kosher, Deedy said Empire is still the leader in its field.
"There is sharp competition, but competition makes us sharp," he said.