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February 7, 2014

Russian red tape halts Sochi-bound yogurt

By Joe Mahoney Staff Writer
The Daily Star

---- — Getting several thousand containers of fresh Chobani yogurt to U.S. Olympic athletes in Sochi is proving more difficult than anyone could have imagined a week ago.

And it has nothing to do with the tight seal of security around the Russian village 5,200 miles east of the Chenanago County town of Columbus, where the yogurt for the Olympians was produced.

Even with the Obama administration and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., pressing the Russian government to admit the yogurt to pass through its customs, the country hosting the Winter Olympics was still saying “Nyet” to those requests Thursday night.

The 5,000 containers of various Chobani blends remained in limbo, stacked inside a refrigerated facility outside Newark International Airport, from where they would be shipped to Sochi should the diplomatic overtures being made to Russian envoys in Washington prove fruitful.

“This is very, very disappointing to a lot of the people who work at Chobani,” said Betsey Baio, who serves food to many of the yogurt factory workers at her New Berlin restaurant, New York Pizza. “It’s really sad and frustrating they are holding this up for this long. To us, it just seems like Russia must be out to ban American products.”

Schumer said even though Chobani has completed all necessary paperwork, the Russian government refuses to accept a certification from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that the product meets food safety standards.

Meredith Kelly, a spokeswoman for Schumer, said the Russian government was raising questions about the safety of American dairy products that made it “impossible” to declare that certain cattle diseases do not exist in this country.

“They are pointing to specific diseases in cows that do exist,” even though they have not been documented in the cows producing the milk accepted by Chobani, Kelly said.

“This comes down to politics more than it does to science,” she said. “They know that’s an impossible form to complete.”

In addition, she noted, the New York company wants to send to Sochi is not destined for consumption by Russians but by the members of the U.S. Olympic team. But so far that point isn’t helping to get the Russians to budge.

In a statement released Thursday, Russian officials accused U.S. authorities of not fulfilling the requirements needed to be completed for the yogurt to get into the country. They also took a slap at Schumer. Currently, Russian accepts no yogurt produced in the U.S.

“Unfortunately, the technical issue of product certification supervised by the state veterinary inspection received a political tone,” said the statement from the Russian Embassy. “For instance, the demand of one of the U.S. senators to the Russian Government of an ‘immediate import of Chobani yogurt to Russia’ was published in the press.”

Chobani said the plan to send free yogurt to the Olympic team and to members of the NBC News crew covering the events is “something we’ve had in the works for quite some time.”

Schumer lamented that the product — 5,000 fresh single-serve cups of blueberry, strawberry and peach Chobani, and multi-serve containers of plain Chobani yogurt for smoothies — would go to waste unless the Russian government officials standing in the way of the yogurt don’t change their stance.

The company said in a statement: “This is a time when the focus should be on our athletes, so we’re just trying to do right by them in getting food they enjoy from home.”

At New York Pizza in New Berlin, Betsey Baio said it will be a shame if the yogurt is kept out of Sochi because of Russian red tape.

“The people here who work for Chobani take pride in their company,” she said. “Chobani has done nothing but good for our whole area.”