Editor's Plate: Tempest in a Yogurt Cup

Sept. 19, 2013
Moldy yogurt recall teaches Chobani – and every food processor – several painful lessons.

It wasn't the most serious recall to hit the news, but a lot of people took extra interest in the late-August recall of Greek yogurt products by Chobani Inc. It was in some ways a case history of how a high-flying neophyte can either underestimate the repercussions of any tainted product … or try too hard to protect its brand image.

Or, maybe there's a third option: That everybody likes to see an upstart run by a Horatio Alger billionaire stumble. I honestly haven't made up my mind which it is. I see elements of all three.

It's interesting that the recall involved yogurt made at Chobani's sparkling new half-billion-dollar, million-sq.-ft. greenfield plant in Twin Falls, Idaho – surprisingly not the once dilapidated (but nicely remodeled) 100-plus-years-old original plant in South Edmeston, N.Y. The Twin Falls plant was just brought online early this year. Obviously they haven't worked out all the bugs (pun intended).

In the waning days of August, some customers complained their yogurt looked runny and tasted fizzy or off. Then some reported minor illnesses. It turns out the yogurt was tainted with mold. While the company issued updates, a few days went by before the word "recall" was used.

The official note on the FDA website called it a "voluntary recall" "because of product concerns." But there apparently was a little drama leading up to that benign posting by the food agency.

Some news websites were critical of the hip company's use of social media, instead of a formal news release and maybe even a press conference, to spread the word. The first warnings that went out were low-key, almost casual. But both approaches are entirely in line with the company's (carefully crafted) image.

One web story hinted at FDA displeasure with the speed (or lack of) with which Chobani was moving.

The first Chobani acknowledgement I could find was Aug. 31 on the company's Twitter feed. The brief note acknowledged some customer complaints and notes Chobani had "voluntarily and proactively removed and replaced the majority of potentially affected products." While it did ask customers who bought products with the affected codes to contact Chobani, there was no seriousness or urgency to the tone and no mention of the word recall. The Twitter note made it sound more like a quality issue than a food safety concern.

Three days later, the company said it had identified the culprit as "a type of mold commonly found in the dairy environment." Later, Chobani identified the mold as Mucor circinelloides. The website quoted Randy Worobo, a professor of food science in Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, "and a leading expert on food spoilage, and microbial food safety and quality" as saying it's a species of mold "commonly associated with fruits, vegetables and dairy that has been reported to cause spoilage like swelling and bloating in yogurt. It is not considered a disease-causing foodborne microorganism."

By Sept. 6, Hamdi Ulukaya, founder and chairman, wrote a note of apology on the company website:

Dear fans and customers,

I'm sorry we let you down.

From the workers in our factories to our sales teams on the road, there is nothing we take greater pride in than making a perfect cup of yogurt.

Chobani was created to make great yogurt that is accessible to everyone, so I take it very seriously and personally when we don't deliver for our fans and consumers.

We recently identified mold in a limited amount of product that came from our Idaho facility. While this type of mold is common in the dairy environment, particularly when using only natural ingredients that are absent of artificial preservatives, it's still unacceptable to me and all of our yogurt makers.

Over the past few days, with the help of our retail partners, we proactively withdrew product from store shelves and I decided to voluntarily recall the limited amount of remaining product to be extra careful and cautious.

My heartfelt apologies to our friends, fans and consumers who were impacted, as your loyalty and safety is something we cherish and never take for granted.

As I said, it wasn't the world's worst food incident. Nearly two weeks into the incident, CBS.com quoted an FDA spokesperson as saying 89 people apparently had fallen ill after eating the tainted yogurt. And those ills were described as nausea and cramps. Certainly not fun, but probably not worth a trip to the hospital.

It's fortunate that, at least as of this writing, I can make light of the whole incident and suppose that Chobani experienced more gastric distress than its affected customers. But it is a lesson, for this upstart yogurt company – which, by the way, is our 2012 Processor of the Year  – and for all food processors who think they have everything under control. Food safety, brand loyalty, satisfied customers – all are fragile things.

This column originally appeared in the September 2013 issue of Food Processing magazine

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