Pareve Chocolate chips from Trader Joe's! May 25, 2012 10:00:28 GMT -5
Post by shira on May 25, 2012 10:00:28 GMT -5
At the Neighborhood Trader Joe's, a Run on Chocolate Chips
By AMELIA HARRIS
Looking in her cupboard last week, Shulamis Labkowski got a morsel of unwelcome news.
The mother of three from Oakland, Calif., inspected three bags of Trader Joe's semisweet chocolate chips, a staple in her kosher kitchen. They were alike in all ways but one: Two of them had a small D on the label, meaning they were classified as dairy under Jewish dietary laws.
The changed label was tough to swallow. Kosher law forbids mixing meat and dairy at any time, but Trader Joe's chips used to be deemed "pareve," meaning they could be eaten with either meat or dairy meals. An avid baker, Mrs. Labkowski tore through five to seven bags a week to make treats without worrying about running afoul of the rules.
"If I couldn't get the pareve, I'd have to resort to making something without chocolate. It limits your choices a lot,'' said Mrs. Labkowski, 26 years old and the wife of a rabbi.
So, she rushed to her local Trader Joe's and bought 40 12-ounce bags of the pareve chips still in stock at $2.29 apiece.
As message boards and blogs burned with news of the switch last week, customers across the U.S. began hoarding the last bags of pareve chocolate chips. Now, empty shelves are all that is left at many Trader Joe's outposts.
In a store in New York's Chelsea neighborhood, one woman bought 90 bags of chips, according to an employee, who declined to give his name. He said the store had been out of chips for a couple of days.
The ingredients in the chips haven't changed, a Trader Joe's spokeswoman said in a statement. She said the chips are still made on equipment dedicated to nondairy chocolate but that the cleaning process for the "bagging line" was different.
The change prompted the Food and Drug Administration to require that the chips carry a warning for milk allergies. That, in turn, triggered a review of the product's kosher status, the Trader Joe's spokeswoman said.
OK Kosher Certification, the company whose K-in-a-circle insignia adorns the Trader Joe's confections, decided where the chips fell. The company claims to certify about 500,000 consumer products from food giants like ConAgra, Tropicana and Miller Brewing.
Under OK's guidelines for going kosher, manufacturers undertake a rigorous process, including plant visits with a rabbinical coordinator who has expertise in the product, regular monitoring and an annual inspection.
The status change in Trader Joe's chips follows a cost-cutting move by the manufacturer of the chips in April, said Rabbi Chaim Fogelman, a spokesman for the Brooklyn-based OK Kosher. Machines in the bagging line are no longer wiped down and checked for dairy residue after handling milk-based chocolate, he said. Both Trader Joe's and OK Kosher declined to name the manufacturer.
"As much as everybody wants us to label these pareve, under no circumstances would we want to label something pareve when we have a suspicion or a hunch there might be a dairy chip in the bag,'' Rabbi Fogelman said.
Fans of the product—who also include the lactose-intolerant—aren't letting the cookie crumble without a fight.
A change.org petition, Trader Joe's: Keep the Chocolate Chips Pareve!, has attracted more than 4,200 signatures. A similar Facebook campaign is under way.
Trader Joe's, which operates stores in 32 states and Washington, D.C., according to its website, declined to comment on requests to return to the old way of making chocolate chips. But there is precedent for a successful pressure campaign.
For decades, Oreos were made with lard, rendering them decidedly un-kosher. Observant Jews complained vociferously they couldn't eat the forbidden treat and had to settle for Hydrox cookies instead. Kraft Foods Inc. eventually ditched the pig fat and the cookie was deemed kosher in 1997. Kellogg Co., the last owner of Hydrox cookies, discontinued the biscuit in 2000 though it cooked up a special batch in 2008 for the snack's 100th anniversary.
When it comes to Trader Joe's chips, Elliot Lowenstein, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney, has been particularly active in calling for a reversal online, despite not being a baker.
"I just eat them. I didn't really need to pay attention as to whether they were dairy or meat,'' said Mr. Lowenstein, 36.
He grabbed 11 pareve packets from the Trader Joe's in Washington's Foggy Bottom neighborhood, but he is already hunting for a replacement snack. "I'm looking at the vegan websites now to see which ones are rated really well and then seeing if they're kosher," Mr. Lowenstein said.
The chip shortage could be bittersweet for Cheder Menachem, a Jewish school in Los Angeles. It will be raffling off 20 packets of the old chips at its auction night in June. Tickets are $5 apiece.
The head of OK Kosher Certification and its kashrut administrator, Rabbi Don Yoel Levy, said the company didn't expect the hundreds of phone calls and emails it received after news of the changes.
"I know that the people who produce it are looking to, [shall] we say, rectify the situation or be able to produce it in a pareve method,'' Rabbi Levy said.
And that would be welcome relief for customers.
"I'm hoping once they realize the significance to such a large amount of people, they'll reconsider,'' said Mrs. Labkowski, who cooks not only for her family but for visitors to a center she runs with her husband.
Otherwise, she said, "I'm going to have to buy the other kosher pareve ones. But I don't like the quality. So I'm going to have to change how we enjoy our desserts.''
Others have been racing from store to store hoping to score a bag. Leo Brafman, who lives in Brooklyn's Crown Heights neighborhood, first went to the one Trader Joe's in Brooklyn last week and scooped up the last seven bags. He then dashed to a store in Rego Park, Queens, and bought its last 38 bags. Rumors of an extra shipment sent him back to Brooklyn, but the news was half-baked.
"All the packets were [dairy] already," Mr. Brafman said. "And my wife was devastated."
Write to Amelia Harris at Amelia.Harris@dowjones.com
A version of this article appeared May 24, 2012, on page A1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: At the Neighborhood Trader Joe's, A Run on Chocolate Chips.