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Passover, which begins this week, is a celebration of food and faith. The Passover dinner, called the Seder, commemorates the exodus of the Jews from oppression in Egypt. Kosher standards are especially important during the holiday.
For four Jews memories of Pesach 1998 hold a bitter taste. Adi Nimni, Goren Avital, Yaakow Vaknin, and Yaakow Yamin selected meat from beneath a sign that read "For Passover" at a Sunny Isles Winn-Dixie, according to their lawyer Itzhak Bachar. Then they purchased it, took it home, and ate it, only to discover that it wasn't kosher.
The four contend they were victims of false advertising. They took photos of the placard that hung above the meat, made copies of allegedly misleading advertisements, and even interviewed a store official on videotape.
"Passover is a very specific and emotional period for the Jewish people. It has a lot to do with keeping a very strict kosher tradition," Bachar says. "Winn-Dixie is using Passover to target the Jewish community."
Terry Walsh, marketing director for the Miami division of Winn-Dixie, states he knows nothing about the allegations. He acknowledges clerks might have made a mistake, but asserts the store follows county law on kosher advertising.
"[The 'For Passover' sign] should not have been put up," Walsh admits.
Since biblical times kosher foods have been prepared and maintained according to rabbinical interpretation of Jewish law. To qualify as kosher, animals must be slaughtered by a trained rabbi known as a schocet, Hebrew for "the slaughterer." He severs the windpipe with a fast, painless slash to the throat, then drains the blood, reducing the likelihood of contamination. The meat is salted, packaged, and stored in ways that conform to Jewish law.
In Miami-Dade where scammers sometimes go to astounding lengths, even when it comes to peddling provisions à la kosher, lawmakers took action in 1991. After complaints of faked fare, Dade County commissioners approved an ordinance that sets strict limits on the preparation, advertisement, and sale of kosher food.
"It was passed to ensure that anybody who buys a kosher product is actually buying kosher," says Leonard Elias, Miami-Dade consumer advocate. "It's a question of truth in advertising. Obviously it's a consumer protection initiative."
The law is specific. If an advertisement uses the words "kosher-style," "kosher-type," "Jewish," "Hebrew," "holiday foods," or "traditional Jewish foods" to refer to nonkosher items, it must include a clearly stated disclaimer with letters no smaller than the tiniest type in the ad. It also stipulates that kosher and nonkosher food must be kept in separate display cabinets, each with clear identification.
Miami-Dade inspectors make random visits to stores to enforce the law. Since 1994 the county has issued eight citations to three retailers says Lee Sauls, a supervisor in the county's consumer services department. Winn-Dixie has never been cited.
But Bachar argues the Sunny Isles store violated the law. In the days either just before or during Passover, the group (three of whom were Israeli tourists), walked into the supermarket at 3805 NE 163rd St. They found their Passover meal after spotting the white sign with blue and black lettering that read: "For Passover. Beef Brisket. Whole $1.95/lb. Half $2.48/lb." The words U.S. Choice were written in red in the bottom left corner.
Bachar maintains that after eating the meat, they realized the packaging was missing a seal, called a plumba, which denotes kosher authenticity. But it was too late: They had already ingested the unblessed flesh.
Shortly after the meal, Bachar says his clients returned to the store and videotaped the store official insisting they purchased kosher food.
"We want them to remedy the situation. We want them to warn the public," Bachar says. "My clients were emotionally disturbed."
Bachar also gave New Times a Winn-Dixie advertisement published in December 1998, which showed the Star of David above corned beef brisket advertised at $1.98 per pound. A whole beef brisket was pitched for the same price. Small letters noted that neither was kosher.
Bachar first called New Times in early March to say he had an interesting story: His clients planned to sue the chain. Then he left for Israel. This past week Bachar said neither he nor his clients wanted an article published about the incident. At press time he had not sued Winn-Dixie, though he is contemplating legal action.
Walsh says the supermarket chain is sincere in trying to serve its Jewish customers. Winn-Dixie has been selling kosher food for 35 years. It buys kosher provisions from well-known distributors such as Empire Kosher and Hebrew National. He claims that until recently the store even faxed holiday advertisements to the county's consumer protection division for approval. (Sauls knows nothing about faxed ads.)
Rabbi David M. Golowinski, the southeast representative for Organized Kashruth Labs, a national kosher certification agency, says retailers should not use the word kosher lightly. Doing so can create misconceptions.
"A sign such as the one Winn-Dixie put up is definitely misleading," Golowinski said after New Times showed him the picture of the "For Passover" sign. By eating the meat, even mistakenly, the men violated God's law, he explained.
According to Golowinski eating nonkosher meat is a loathsome act in God's eyes. "If God commands and you don't listen, it's an offense," he says.