Greek yoghurt giant of the self-proclaimed 'nothing but good' philosophy recalls pots after reports of vomiting and diarrhoea
Chobani, the US yoghurt giant, donates 10% of its after-tax profits to charity. Its products are brightly packaged with images of fresh fruit, and daubed with "only natural ingredients" messaging. And it specialises in the lucrative Greek yoghurt market, targeting health-conscious consumers drawn to its lower-fat, higher-protein qualities. It is a strategy that has seen Chobani compared to Google and Facebook as it hauled in $1bn in revenues last year.
But the company's sunny outlook clouded over this week when it was forced to recall some of its yoghurts following reports of illnesses from customers.
The complaints – which Chobani has attributed to "a type of mold" – are splattered all over Chobani's Facebook page and range from diarrhoea to nights spent in hospital.
Chobani has apologised, and introduced the recall on Thursday, a week after first alerting customers that there may be a problem. "Nothing is more important to us than the health and safety of our consumers, and we are taking all of the necessary steps to uphold our very rigid quality standards," the company said in a statement today.
"If you've purchased these products with the code 16-012, best by dates 9/11/2-13 – 10/7/2013, please discard and contact our customer loyalty team."
The language was rather stronger than the first time Chobani had broached the subject of bad yoghurt on 31 August. Then the company merely said it had "heard quality concerns surrounding certain products, which were experiencing swelling or bloating". It said it was issuing a "voluntary withdrawal", which has since been upgraded to Thursday's recall.
Chobani said a "thorough investigation" had identified "a type of mold commonly found in the dairy environment" which had caused the swelling and bloating. The company said the contamination was limited to products produced at its Idaho plant and had only affected 5% of its yoghurt.
It is a dent to Chobani's self-stated "nothing but good" philosophy. The company, which says it is "committed to supporting local farmers and strengthening its surrounding area economies", accounts for half of all Greek yoghurt sales in the US despite having been founded six years ago in an old Kraft plant in New York state.
Yet for all its feel-good, friendly marketing, Chobani has angered some by initially giving scant information about the cause of its recall and then refusing to be specific on the type of mold that caused the problem.
"Ok, we have two [people] ill – an adult with gastric issues and a rash, and a toddler who hit the skids with gastric for about 10 days. Totally not cool Chobani!," Karen Tonso wrote on the company's Facebook page.
"Please publish the name of the bacterial contaminant so we can get proper treatment that takes our particular medical conditions into account."
Chobani responded that the "health and safety of you and your family is of the utmost importance to us", but did not name the mold.
Tonso's complaint was one of dozens on Chobani's Facebook.
"So this is why my kids' tummies were so sick and why they now refuse to eat the yoghurt," said Lorraine Colwell. Another customer, Lisa Larsen, said Chobani's "delayed actions in reporting problems cost me a night in the emergency room, severe vomiting , and stabbing stomach pain".
The criticism and recall appears to have been particularly galling to the company's CEO, Hamdi Ulukaya, who launched Chobani in 2007, obsesses over the packaging of individual pots and was named Ernst & Young's World Entrepreneur of the Year in June 2013. On Thursday a close-up photograph of Ulukaya dominated the Chobani Facebook page, showing him gazing into the middle distance and looking very contrite indeed.
"My heartfelt apologies to our friends and customers," a message signed 'Hamdi' read.
A spokeswoman for Chobani said the company was investigating and responding to claims of illness. She did not have a specific number of people who had fallen ill, she said.
"Since the problem was first identified, we have had some claims of illness and are investigating and responding to those claims, as there's nothing more important to us than the health and safety of our consumers. I do not have a specific number.
"Chobani began a proactive and voluntary withdrawal of product, after learning that a small quantity had been affected by a type of mold commonly found in the dairy environment.
"While this type of mold is unlikely to have ill health effects, due to some claims of illness the company has decided to go from voluntarily withdrawing to voluntarily recalling the limited amount of potentially affected product."
[Image via Chobani Facebook page]