Chobani consumers in multiple states urging company to expand its recall of multiple kinds of Greek yogurt, saying they've experienced problems with yogurt that had expiration dates after recalled ones
September 26, 2013
(Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
– Chobani consumers in multiple states are urging the company to expand its recall of multiple kinds of Greek yogurt, saying they've experienced problems with yogurt that had expiration dates after the recalled ones, but came from the same plant in Idaho that had a mold problem.
Some consumers say they contracted stomach illnesses from eating the later yogurts, too.
Chobani originally recalled 91 varieties of yogurt with the code 16-012 and expiration dates of Sept. 11 to Oct. 7. Since then, nearly 300 consumers nationwide have filed complaints with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, saying they got sick after eating the yogurt. Among them are six Wisconsin consumers, an agency official said. Chobani has said only people with a compromised immune system could experience health problems after eating yogurt with the mold that caused the recall.
Consumers dispute that. For weeks they've complained about gastrointestinal problems on Chobani's Facebook page. Some say they were violently ill, which caused them to miss work for several days and seek medical help. In recent days, more consumers have weighed in, saying their yogurt had dates after Oct. 7 and developed similar bloated lids as the recalled ones. Some yogurt had a runny texture, tasted strange and caused similar health problems.
"Just a heads up that there are containers outside of the expiration dates provided that are making people sick!" Nate Thurston wrote Wednesday on Chobani's Facebook page.
Catherine Herzog said she previously complained of bloated containers. She later bought new ones from the same plant, dated Oct. 18 -- 11 days after the recalled ones. They looked fine but tasted a little sharp, she said.
"I did not eat anything outside of my normal diet that day except reintroducing Chobani. Unfortunately I came down with cramps, intense headaches, nausea and vomiting. I could not keep food or drink down for well over 12 hours," she said on the Facebook page. "I think perhaps other studies or a reinvestigation of your affected plant is necessary."
Chobani told several commenters on its page that "any dates beyond the listed recall dates are considered safe to eat." Chobani spokeswoman Amy Juaristi stood by that.
"We have confidence in the scope of the recall, but will review all quality issues that are brought to our attention," she said in an email Wednesday to the Public Investigator.
She said the company tested the yogurt for other things besides mold that may cause health problems.
"We did comprehensive testing for pathogens and toxins, and none were found," she said. "We conducted a comprehensive assessment of our systems, controls and procedures. To accomplish this, we engaged external experts to assist and advise our internal teams. We have taken corrective actions, and we will continue to monitor and modify our systems, controls and procedures going forward."
In a search for answers, consumers are turning to labs to test the yogurt. Among those consumers is one from Wisconsin, whose family member became sick. The consumer wished to remain anonymous because the consumer is considering joining a nationwide class-action lawsuit. The suit argues that Chobani didn't take proper precautions in handling of the recall, which caused consumers nationwide to fall ill and retailers to lose revenue.
Consumers were complaining on Twitter, Facebook and other social media about mold and other problems with their Chobani yogurt as early as Aug. 19. The company initially started a quiet withdrawal of products in late August for "quality reasons" but denied it was a food safety issue. An overwhelming response from consumers led the company to issue a voluntary recall Sept. 5.
FDA spokeswoman Shelly Burgess told the Public Investigator that FDA officials conducted an inspection that day at the Idaho plant and reviewed its records. Inspectors generally check for food and devices that have been adulterated or are being prepared, packed or held under conditions that may cause them to become "injurious to people's health." Inspectors found no food safety violations, she said.
Burgess declined to provide information on what food testing the FDA may have performed on the yogurt independent of Chobani's tests. She also would not say whether or how the agency verified Chobani's claims that mold was the only problem, and that 95% of the affected products had been taken off the shelves as of early September.
"FDA's investigation into the Chobani Greek yogurt recall is still on-going and the agency cannot provide specific details at this time," she said.
She could not say how long it would take for the FDA to complete its investigation or whether an expansion of the recall is being considered.
Chobani normally handles a couple of thousand emails per week, but has seen "multiples of that" since the recall, the company's chief communications manager, Nicki Briggs, told the Wall Street Journal. That has created a backlog of of complaints. It's the company's first major crisis in its eight-year existence, Briggs said, and several mistakes have been made along the way.
In an effort to cut down on response times, Chobani streamlined its coupon replacement process, but appears to have standardized it so much that some consumers didn't get the refunds they're entitled to. For instance, consumers say they bought as many as 12, 16 or 20 yogurts but received coupons for only four replacements.
Another problem is that some coupons are invalid in certain states, including Wisconsin, Minnesota, California, Louisiana, Nevada, New Jersey, North Dakota and Tennesee. The coupon also states that only one can be used per purchase. That caused problems for Mary-Alice Belo DeSpain, who tried to use her eight replacement coupons Tuesday.
"They would not scan and the store would not accept them," she commented on Chobani's website. "If they had been good, the store would have only accepted one coupon at a time. I would have had to make 8 separate purchases. This is no way to deal with the problem."
Instead of sending replacement coupons for the number of recalled yogurts that the consumer purchased of a specific kind, the company sent "variety packs," some of which were for products that the consumer didn't eat or care for, such as tubes marketed to children.
"It is important to us that customers receive coupons for each product they purchased and that those coupons are honored," Juaristi told the Public Investigator. "We will rectify any problems that consumers may have with the process."
Consumers also complained that recalled yogurts are still being sold in stores. As the Public Investigator's spot check of greater Milwaukee grocery stores showed, many stores were still selling recalled Chobani yogurt a week and a half after the recall. Consumers spotted recalled yogurts at stores in Indiana over the weekend and California as late as Wednesday.
Finally, consumers complained of Chobani being slow to respond to their complaints, saying emails went unanswered or weren't answered for up to three weeks. Some consumers said they posted complaints on the company's website that were deleted.
Juaristi said the company has reinforced its customer loyalty team with more than 200 reassigned and part-time employees to provide support 24/7.
Briggs acknowledged that the company should have brought in external resources to help handle the crisis sooner. She said the company's focus is on being responsive and delivering the best customer service, especially in a time of frustration.
"We want to make sure something like this doesn't happen again," Briggs said.
For more consumer stories, visit the Public Investigator blog at www.jsonline.com/piblog.
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