Trader Joes pulls Empire Kosher poultry from Western stores

The Trader Joe’s specialty-food chain decided recently 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 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 percent 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 supplies more than 50 percent 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 lower 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 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 percent of the weight stated on their labels.

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

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.

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

Rubashkin’s Aaron’s Best, a meat vendor that added poultry to its offerings in 1992, was 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.