Chobani says it has unconfirmed reports of illness; Ulukaya apologizes

Times-News (Twin Falls)September 6, 2013 

Chobani is amplifying its message to remove contaminated yogurt from store shelves nationwide after reports of illness surfaced Wednesday.

A voluntary recall of 35 varieties of Chobani yogurt has been in effect since Tuesday, and 95 percent of affected products have been destroyed, said Amy Juaristi, director of public relations.

None of the reports of illness have been confirmed, Juaristi said.

Chobani founder Hamdi Ulukaya wrote an apology to fans of the Greek yogurt on the company's Facebook page.

The company is working with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to get word out about yogurt cups contaminated by mold, Juaristi said.

"We recently identified mold in a limited amount of product that came from our Idaho facility," Ulukaya wrote in a letter on the company's website. "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."

Tainted products from Chobani's new Twin Falls plant were identified as far back as early August.

Asked what the company is doing to prevent recurrence of the contamination, Juaristi emailed the Times-News: "Our Twin Falls production is at normal levels. We're hard at work putting only the best yogurt back on shelves."

A food scientist with the University of Idaho, local food safety officials and the FDA say the tainted yogurt is not a public safety issue.

"We've received reports of people not feeling well, so we take a lot of care because it's important for us to ensure their safety and satisfaction with our product," Juaristi said. "We've identified the issue at hand and are working very hard to make sure it's addressed moving forward."

The FDA is not investigating partly because it has not confirmed reports of illness related to the yogurt, said FDA spokeswoman Tamara Ward.

"We've been in contact with the company since we learned about the issue and are in discussions with them on how to best recall (the tainted yogurt)."

It is rare for yogurt to house disease or pathogens, said Gulhan Unlu, food microbiologist with the University of Idaho.

"During the fermentation process, we don't expect pathogens to grow because the acidity is so high. Not many pathogens can survive that. There could always be an organism that can tolerate (high acidity), but it is very unlikely."

Juaristi said she didn’t know how Chobani's yogurt was contaminated, but Unlu had some ideas.

At any point from cow to cup, the yogurt process could have been flawed, she said. A batch of milk could have been under-pasteurized or not pasteurized at all. Even if milk is fully pasteurized, the process doesn't kill all microorganisms, which can evolve and ruin the final product.

Even if the materials used to ferment the yogurt were clean, the process could have gone wrong in a number of ways, Unlu said.

"This happens commonly in these types of facilities,” Gulhan said. "It could be people working in the plant, any kind of surface. It could be air. The (contamination) can develop by itself. It could've been something added in post-production, like strawberries."

Chobani is advising store owners nationwide to destroy any yogurt containers with the code 16-012 and expiration dates Sept. 11 to Oct. 7.

The FDA advises people with health concerns to call 1-800-332-1088.

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Joe Cadotte: jcadotte@magicvalley.com

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