Chobani at center of latest tension between U.S., Russia

February 6, 2014 

Chobani Greek yogurt

COURTESY PHOTO

The relationship between the U.S. and Russia is deeply strained, with recent disagreements over weighty matters like the Syrian conflict, arms control, human rights and the granting of asylum to Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who has leaked troves of documents detailing the government’s eavesdropping programs.

Now the two countries are skirmishing over an unanticipated, but no less momentous subject, at least in certain parts of the U.S.: the delivery of Greek yogurt to the American athletes competing at the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

The Russian government is apparently blocking a shipment of 5,000 containers of Chobani yogurt - now sitting in limbo in cold storage near Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey - that had been bound for the U.S. Olympic team.

The blockade has prompted protests from yogurt-promoting politicians in New York and in Washington, who express outrage that U.S. athletes could be deprived of a protein-rich food that had been part of their training regimen.

The Russian government says the American-made yogurt cannot enter Russia because the Americans have not submitted the proper paperwork. The U.S. says the certification required by the Russians would be impossible to attain.

The yogurt makers are growing exasperated.

"I’d like to think that yogurt could have diplomatic immunity," said Peter McGuinness, the chief marketing and brand officer for Chobani.

After beginning as a breakfast-table squabble, the dairy drama is quickly escalating.

The Obama administration has intervened, seeking to clear the way for the delivery. A U.S. senator fired off an urgent letter to the Russian ambassador, asking for his help.

U.S. officials are hoping to receive a special dispensation from the Russian agency Rosselkhoznadzor, the Federal Service for Veterinary and Phytosanitary Surveillance, whose jurisdiction includes American-made Greek yogurt.

Yogurt production is a booming business in upstate New York, a place that does not have many booming businesses. Naturally, the industry has become a favorite for many of the state’s leading elected officials.

Sens. Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten E. Gillibrand, both Democrats, have pushed for Greek yogurt to be served with school lunches. And New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, also a Democrat, is planning his second "yogurt summit" to celebrate the industry.

Schumer, who is fond of plain Greek yogurt and likes to add raisins, has jumped into the fray. "There is simply no time to waste in getting our Olympic athletes a nutritious and delicious food," he said in a statement.

In requesting that the blockade be lifted, Schumer added that when it comes to yogurt, "the Russian authorities should get past ’nyet.’"

No resolution is in sight. Whether U.S. athletes will have access to any other brands of yogurt could not be determined Wednesday. Yevgeniy Khorishko, a spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Washington, said U.S. officials had been told about the necessary paperwork, but had not complied.

Khorishko said there would be no special treatment just because the yogurt was bound for American lips. "We are a lawful country," he said. "You should follow the rules."

The Sochi-bound yogurt may be a victim of a broader dairy dispute. U.S. dairy producers have been cut off from the Russian market since 2010, as the two countries have been unable to reach an agreement on health certification for U.S. dairy exports.

"The Russians have not put in the effort to try to resolve this," said Jaime Castaneda, a senior vice president of the National Milk Producers Federation, adding that Russia was an appealing market for butterfat.

Chobani is the official yogurt of the U.S. Olympic team, and in the run-up to Sochi, its products were made available to athletes at Olympic training centers in the United States.

For the Olympics, the company had planned to send single-serve cups of blueberry, strawberry and peach yogurt, along with larger containers of plain yogurt that could be used to make smoothies. Some of the yogurt came from upstate New York, and some from Chobani’s other American factory, in Twin Falls, Idaho.

McGuinness, the Chobani executive, said it only seemed natural to send along a shipment of Chobani, given that U.S. athletes had enjoyed eating it during their training.

"Unfortunately, no good deed goes unpunished," he said.

Yogurt-sensitive politicians came to Chobani’s defense on Wednesday, urging Russian officials to reconsider their crackdown.

"You’d think they’d have enough to worry about," said James L. Seward, a Republican state senator whose district includes Chobani’s plant in Chenango County.

He predicted that ample access to Greek yogurt could boost the Americans’ medal count.

And Gary D. Finch, a Republican state assemblyman who also represents the Chobani plant, suggested that Russia should also consider importing Chobani so Russians everywhere could enjoy it.

"It would have a healthy effect on the way they look at life over there," he said.

Finch, recalling Chobani’s explosive growth since its founding, walked over to his refrigerator and opened it. He counted 18 cups.

If Russia wants to have a Cold War over yogurt, he said, so be it.

"Whatever they choose to bring to the table to have some conflict over, we, of course, will win," he said. "And we will have our yogurt at the end of the day."

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