The supermarket chain has a different interpretation of “kosher” than many Jews.
In Latin the phrase is caveat emptor. The English version is more simple — and blunt: “Let the buyer beware.”
The aphorism is particularly good for observant Jews to keep in mind when they are shopping at some area grocery stores. Wegmans, which operates supermarkets in six states — including stores in the South Jersey towns of Cherry Hill and Mt. Laurel, as well as King of Prussia and Warrington in Pennsylvania — features kosher foods sections that could be considered anything but for those accustomed to the level of kashrus ensured by the regular presence and certification of a mashgiach.
Despite evidence that the company takes legitimate kosher products such as chicken or fish and essentially makes them treif by seasoning and cooking them in their own, non-kosher ovens, then repackaging them, the company believes it is doing each local Jewish community a service. In reality, it’s a disservice, which few shoppers seem to understand, particularly if they might be buying gift items for a truly kosher household.
“As long as it’s not opened, it’s kosher-certified,” said John, the deli manager at the Wegmans King of Prussia. “As soon I open it or puncture the package, it is no longer kosher-certified — it would be kosher-style.
“We make no illusions about us being certified,” he continued. “I’m not a rabbi, and we are not a designated store.”
Except that, according to Wegmans’ own glossy 28-page “Kosher Entertaining” brochure laying out Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and other holiday options for customers, they are. Even a store spokesperson defines their products as kosher, not kosher-style.
“Wegmans Kosher Delis are ‘kosher,’ ” said Jeanne Colleluori, media relations coordinator for Wegmans Consumer Affairs. “There is no designation for ‘kosher-style.’ The person who oversees our kosher delis consults with a rabbi in Rochester, N.Y. He [the rabbi] reviews some of our printed materials and makes suggestion or corrections regarding our communications.
“He will also advise if an unfamiliar product is presented to Wegmans. He does not have any decision-making or audit responsibilities at Wegmans.”
That rabbi, Chaim Hisiger, verifies that. “My work with Wegmans has nothing to do with the kosher section,” said Hisiger, who oversees Rochester’s kosher service agency and also serves as principal of local Hillel Community Day School. “I have no control over what the company does.
“I can only give them what the kosher standard is. What they deem as acceptable and especially if they have the state backing them up, who am I to question? The only thing I certify are the packages that go out, but Wegmans is legitimately kosher based on the state’s law” in New Jersey.
Cherry Hill attorney Adam Rosen recently entered the Cherry Hill store and was confused to see chickens under a Wegmans label being sold as “strictly kosher” at the Kosher Specialties shop. Knowing there was no mashgiach or rabbi on site, Rosen wondered how this was possible.
It bothered him enough to contact the company for clarification. “I spoke to a manager there who said they take Empire kosher chickens, unwrap them, cook them in their own facilities then repackage them,” said the 28-year-old Rosen, who posted this information on Facebook and has since consulted a rabbi at the Cherry Hill Chabad.
“The label is theirs. It says ‘Kosher Plain Rotisserie Chicken.’ But when I spoke to Jennifer, the manager, she said, ‘We tell people we’re kosher style.’ But there’s no sign saying that. In fact, all labels say kosher.
“If they’re kosher-style, why are they purporting to say kosher? There’s no hechsher. It’s very misleading. I think it violates New Jersey code and constitutes fraud.”
But, as indicated by Hisiger and confirmed by the New Jersey Bureau of Kosher Enforcement, which investigates such allegations, it does not. “Kosher is what they say it is,” said Rabbi Mitchel Bomrind, head of the bureau the past three years. “It’s not up to the expectations of other people.
“Wegmans is within the state law. They disclose they have no rabbinical supervision. The only way they would be in violation would be if they disclose one thing and then do another.
“It’s caveat emptor — let the buyer beware.”
Just a mile from Wegmans at the “Kosher Experience” in the back corner of the Cherry Hill Shop-Rite, buyers seem to be. There, Rabbi Alan Pruss makes sure everything that enters his turf meets his standards.
“I’m very over and above board to make sure everything here has proper certification,” said Pruss, who’s been on the job for 12 years after coming from Pittsburgh. “Everything we do is according to the law” of kashrut.
“If I’m not happy with it, it doesn’t come in. Nothing gets behind that line” separating the meat and deli counter from the grocery area “unless I say OK.”
That inspires customer confidence. “I don’t shop at Wegmans,” said Ron of Cherry Hill, who declined to provide his last name. “It’s not really kosher. I know this is kosher. I’ve been coming here since the kosher butcher closed. Most people buy kosher stuff here.”
Count Tel Aviv native Chaya Nakash among those people. “There’s more variety here,” said Nakash, who lives in Cherry Hill. “I’m Israeli, and they have some Israeli produce I like.
“I buy other things at Wegmans, but they don’t have a lot of variety and this” —the Shop-Rite — “has been here a long time.”
But not everyone agrees with her. “They seem to have better prices here, but I feel just as confident at other places,” said Phyllis from Haddonfield, who also declined to give her last name. “It has to have the symbol. I don’t have to see a rabbi to see that. But I guess I’m not particular.”
Such thinking may be what Wegmans is relying on. “If you’re totally devoted to kashrut, you’re going to make sure and investigate that it’s right,” said Pruss. “ ‘Kosher style’ right away raises a red flag.
“Nobody tries to get away with anything here. But if they’re using their own ovens” at Wegmans “to cook kosher food, there’s certainly an ignorance. Or it’s the famous expression, ‘It’s Kosher enough for me.’ ”
While Wegmans denies it’s doing anything malicious, deceptive or purposefully disrespectful to its Jewish clientele, no one contacted at the company can seem to explain why they have a glass-enclosed case selling lobster within a few feet of both the Cherry Hill Kosher Specialties department and King of Prussia kosher deli.
“An interesting layout,” conceded John from the King of Prussia store, who wouldn’t provide his last name or how long he’d been employed there. “A couple of times, people mention it and that’s when I explain we’re not trying to hide that we’re not certified.
“If I come in and see you have the cap [yarmulke] on or you’re an Orthodox Jew I will make it a point to inform you. Every now and then it will happen — someone’s checking out different kosher options in the area.”
While that may annoy Adam Rosen, it’s not the reason he’s considering his legal options. “I’m not asking for money,” said Rosen, who has not heard back from Wegmans since issuing a cease-and -desist order three weeks ago. “I want them to change their label and issue an apology to the Jewish community.
“I don’t think that’s unreasonable. If they’re kosher-style, they need to make that disclosure. But then don’t tell me you’re kosher-style and have everything portrayed as kosher. I’m going to do what I have to do. I may have others involved as well.”
While sympathetic to the issue, there seems to be no indication Wegmans’ approach will change. “There are always opportunities to review practices with our employees,” said Colleluori in an email response to the Jewish Exponent. “At this time, communications have been sent to our stores to be sure employees are up-to-date with their training.
“Department leaders are also checking to be sure the appropriate information is either posted or filed at the stores.
“Bottom line: Wegmans’ reputation is not about taking shortcuts. We conduct our business following all available regulations.”
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