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Jewish Journal

Trader Joe’s comes up against some tough cookies

by Julie Gruenbaum Fax

May 17, 2012 | 5:50 pm

Ilana Blitzstein, who runs a home bakery, stocked up bags of Trader Joe's chocolate chips, which are about to go from pareve to dairy. Photos by Ilana Blitzstein

Ilana Blitzstein, who runs a home bakery, stocked up bags of Trader Joe's chocolate chips, which are about to go from pareve to dairy. Photos by Ilana Blitzstein

Trader Joe’s got slammed last week by a combination of hysteria and hoarding by kosher bakers when word leaked out that its semisweet chocolate chips were going from pareve to dairy.

“It’s just really sad,” said Shana Fishman, a Beverlywood mother of four who stocked up on 20 bags of chocolate chips at the Trader Joe’s in West Hollywood last week. “It means that I’ll have to use bitter chocolate chips in my cookies, and it means that I’ll have to pay more for my chocolate chips.”

Trader Joe’s semisweet chocolate chips were widely valued as the best, most affordable non-dairy chocolate chips on the market. Until now they have borne an “OK pareve” designation, essential for kosher consumers who do not eat meat and dairy products in the same meal. But the supplier for Trader Joe’s has changed its production procedure, and the chips will now be designated as dairy by Brooklyn-based OK-Kosher Certification.

“We are meeting with Trader Joe’s and encouraging them to go back to the old protocol and get those chips back to pareve,” Rabbi Chaim Fogelman, director of public relations at the OK, said on May 21. “So far, there is no movement in that area, but we are working on it.”

Trader Joe’s released a statement last week defending its chocolate chips.

“The ingredients used in our semisweet chocolate chips have not changed, there are no dairy ingredients in the item, and the chips are made on equipment dedicated to non-dairy chocolate,” a company statement said.

But the chips are bagged on machinery that also bags milk chocolate chips, and the supplier recently switched from a wet to a dry cleaning regimen on the bagging machine. “These changes … triggered the need for an FDA regulated, dairy-related allergen statement, and this in turn brought about a change in the Kosher certification for our item — going from ‘Kosher Parve’ to ‘Kosher Dairy,’ ” the statement read.

An officer at OK Kosher Certification said supervising rabbis can no longer guarantee that no errant milk chocolate chips are included in the semisweet bags.

“Currently, the monitoring of the level of separation between pareve and dairy is no longer sufficient to meet the requirements of OK Pareve,” a statement released by the OK read.

As the news leaked out through mournful Facebook posts, kosher bakers — along with vegans and the lactose intolerant — flooded Trader Joe’s with an unprecedented barrage of calls and e-mails. A petition created on change.org had 4,100 signatures as of the middle of this week.

Trader Joe’s locations reported that consumers were buying 20, 80, even 170 bags at a time.

While many so-called “haimish” brands – Jewish companies that make only kosher foods — produce pareve chocolate chips, those chips are generally waxy and flavorless. The silky, rich Trader Joe’s morsels melt to perfect consistency in cookies and taste like actual chocolate. They are good enough to almost make up for the fact that kosher bakers have to forgo real butter in cookies they serve after a Shabbat lunch of grilled chicken, roasted vegetables and quinoa salad.

Chocolate manufacturing requires cocoa butter and cocoa, but those are expensive ingredients when not purchased in massive volumes. Small kosher brands know their consumers aren’t willing to pay what it would cost to produce premium chocolate chips, said Rabbi Eliezer Eidlitz, director of the Kosher Information Bureau.

“They often can’t even legally call it chocolate. It’s ‘chocolate flavored,’ ” Eidlitz said.

Whole Foods carries Enjoy Life chocolate chips that are kosher pareve. They run $4.99 a bag, while the Trader Joe’s chips are $2.29 a bag. Kosher brands range between $2 and $4.

Some consumers were hoping the Trader Joe’s chips would be designated as the less restrictive DE, which stands for dairy equipment, signifying that the chips were manufactured on equipment also used for dairy.

But OK said the chips have to be considered actually dairy because milk chocolate chips could end up in the bags. Eidlitz said because the chips are complete units that do not fully dissolve into the other ingredients, the “one-sixtieth rule” that can be used to nullify trace amounts of dairy does not apply.

But Eidlitz is holding out hope. In 2006, Duncan Hines cake mixes went dairy, and consumer blowback brought the pareve label back. Same with Stella D’oro cookies, which in 2003 nixed a plan to switch to dairy after a kosher outcry.

A spokesman at the OK said the story is not over.

“We are working to rectify this issue with the manufacturer, and hopefully we will have good news soon,” the OK officer said.

On May 17, Trader Joe’s issued the following glimmer of hope: “We are evaluating our options and although we cannot guarantee a specific outcome at this time, we realize that for some of our customers this is an important issue.”

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