Popular Market Chain Pulls Empire Products

By June D. Bell

Published May 07, 2004, issue of May 07, 2004.
  • Print
  • Share Share

SAN FRANCISCO — The Trader Joe’s supermarket chain recently decided to pull the products of the world’s largest kosher poultry provider and distributor, Empire Kosher, off the shelves of some 150 West Coast stores.

Officials from both companies declined to say why Trader Joe’s, a 216-store boutique grocery chain, decided to cease selling fresh Empire Kosher chicken and turkey in five Western states. The move comes after 14 packages of Empire skinless, boneless chicken breasts were removed from the shelves of a central California Trader Joe’s market on March 18 after a random county inspection found they weighed an average of 9.8% less than their labels stated.

Trader Joe’s vice president of marketing Pat St. John declined to discuss why the company’s West Coast buyer decided to replace Empire with its kosher competitor, Rubashkin’s Aaron’s Best. St. John said Empire “could no longer supply our needs” but would not elaborate because “they are still a valued vendor to Trader Joe’s.”

The chain continues to sell Empire chicken and turkey in 68 stores in the Midwest and on the East Coast.

Empire’s new president and CEO, Robert Van Naarden, said packages of meat can carry incorrect weights if the company’s scales become miscalibrated. Asked if that had occurred with meat sent to Trader Joe’s, he responded: “I don’t know. It might have,” but emphasized that any problems had been remedied.

Empire’s products are packed, weighed and labeled for sale at its Pennsylvania plant.

“I believe there are other factors at work here,” he said, suggesting that the chain’s West Coast buyer wanted to make room for non-kosher products. “That doesn’t mean I won’t work to fix what they say are problems.”

Van Naarden — a member of a group of investors who purchased Empire Kosher several months ago — said consumer demand would prompt Trader Joe’s to abandon Rubashkin chicken.

“If they [Trader Joe’s] want to go to an inferior product, it’s up to them,” he said. “Their customers will tell them.”

Empire, a privately held company, has been selling kosher poultry since 1938 and delivers more than 50% of the kosher chicken sold in North America, Van Naarden said.

“Trader Joe’s may have seen some things they don’t like. Fair enough,” Van Naarden said. “I respect them.… All the things Trader Joe’s is concerned about, as are other customers, are being addressed every single day.”

Trader Joe’s, which prides itself on offering an array of high-end gourmet and imported items at bargain prices, sold Empire’s fresh boneless, skinless chicken breasts; eight-piece cut-up chickens; ground turkey; and turkey breasts. In many West Coast communities that lacked kosher grocery markets, Trader Joe’s was the sole outlet for fresh kosher poultry. And, in some areas, the kosher products at Trader Joe’s were priced less than comparable frozen products in other supermarkets.

An informal survey conducted by the Forward of employees at five Trader Joe’s stores in Northern California indicated that at some stores Empire had continuing problems with spoilage and inaccurate package weights, resulting in incorrect pricing for customers. Employees at two Trader Joe’s outlets in northern California told customers that Empire was unable to consistently supply enough stock. “It’s frustrating and it makes us look bad,” said an employee in Trader Joe’s Los Altos, Calif., store.

The loss of the Trader Joe’s West Coast account occurs just a few months into Van Naarden’s tenure at Empire. He described Trader Joe’s decision to cease sales of Empire at most of its stores as “temporary.” He said his company would increase inventory at other supermarkets in the five-state area where it had been shut out of Trader Joe’s stores.

Neither Empire nor Trader Joe’s was fined after the March 18 inspection, but they were asked to correct the problem. State law requires packaged meats to weigh no less than 97% of the weight stated on their labels.

The breasts sell for $5.49 per pound, so a 10% error on a pound of meat would result in a 55-cent overcharge.

The man who conducted the inspection, Robert Lopez, said it was the first time in his 13 years as a weights and measures inspector for San Luis Obispo County that he had to prohibit the sale of Empire products.

Ken Lake, program supervisor of the California Department of Agriculture’s Division of Management Standards, said the mislabeling appeared to have been isolated and was quickly corrected. “Even the best packers have some things removed from sale,” he said.

St. John said Trader Joe’s has no plans to reinstate Empire despite a four-year relationship. She would not say whether the chain will switch all its stores to Rubashkin’s. “That remains to be seen,” the Trader Joe’s vice president of marketing said. “We’ll start here.”

Empire poultry abruptly disappeared from Trader Joe’s refrigerated shelves after Passover.

Rubashkin’s Aaron’s Best, a meat vendor that added poultry in 1992, was surprised and delighted to pick up Trader Joe’s West Coast account. Its arrival this month marks its debut in the West Coast market.

“When they contacted us, we had no idea they’d already booted Empire out,” said Heshy Rubashkin, vice president of marketing and sales for Iowa-based Agriprocessors, which makes Rubashkin’s Aaron’s Best products.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.