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March 31, 2013

Chobani in flap over 'Greek' yogurt label

By JOE MAHONEY
The Daily Star

---- — Chobani, one of the region’s biggest employers, has been ordered by a British judge to stop labeling its dairy product manufactured in the United States as “Greek” yogurt.

Following a seven-day trial in England, High Court Judge Michael Briggs ruled this week that Chobani has been misrepresenting its product to British consumers by using labeling that calls the product “Greek yoghurt.”

“Yoghurt” is the British spelling for the product spelled “yogurt” in the United States.

The ruling, growing out of a lawsuit brought against Chobani by its rival, Fage, only has application on commerce in the United Kingdom, and has no bearing on how Chobani labels its products in the United States. The ruling does not bar Chobani from labeling its British product “Greek style” yogurt.

Fage, which also operates a yogurt plant in Greece, launched the legal attack on Chobani after the latter company introduced its products into British supermarkets last year.

Briggs also said that Chobani’s chief communications officer, Nicki Briggs (no relation to the jurist), had given testimony that he found to be “either very ill-informed or untruthful.”

The judge scolded Nicki Briggs for the testimony after she claimed that the removal of an entry she made on Chobani’s British website, relating to why Chobani calls its yogurt “Greek,” had nothing to do with the litigation but was instead an updating of the online information.

However, the judge noted that another Chobani executive had already submitted written evidence that the web entry in question was removed specifically because of the Fage lawsuit against Chobani.

In response to the ruling, Chobani spokeswoman Lindsay Kos said in a statement: “We remain unwavering in our belief that the term ‘Greek yogurt’ describes yogurt that has been crafted using an authentic straining technique. It is this straining process, not a country of origin, which removes the excess liquid from the yogurt making it deliciously rich and creamy.”

Kos added that “we will persevere to bring British consumers the choice they deserve in the yoghurt aisle and remain deeply committed to giving our loyal British fans even more great Chobani products and flavors.”

At trial, a witness for Fage, Fiona Prior, testified that she felt deceived by Chobani’s labeling after she was given a free sample of company’s yogurt at a promotional event and noticed labeling on the back of the container indicating it had been “made in USA,” according to the court’s decision.

Prior described Chobani as a “Yankee interloper,” although she insisted she had no built-in dislike of Americans, according to the court decision.

The judge took note of Prior’s testimony in his decision that concluded Chobani has been misrepresenting its product to British consumers.

“The very small print used on the rear of Chobani’s pots to indicate its American place of manufacture is nowhere near sufficient to disabuse that substantial part of the Greek yoghurt buying public likely to think that its description on the front and top of the pot as Greek yoghurt means that it comes from Greece,” the judge wrote. “The evidence of Mrs. Prior that even a self-confessed label freak like her did not see the small print statement of origin until after she had brought her pot home, and indeed eaten its contents, puts that beyond serious doubt.”

Further, he wrote, using the term “Greek yoghurt” on yogurt made outside of Greece “is a misrepresentation to all those who think that Greek yoghurt is made in Greece.”

Chobani employs some 1,200 workers at its plant in Columbus.

The Fage products sold at U.S. stores are labeled as “Greek strained yogurt.”

Fage spokesman Russell Evans did not return a call seeking comment.