Whole Foods’ decision to drop Chobani yogurt from its shelves early next year might have started out as a fight over labeling of products with genetically modified organisms, but now the move seems to be about everything but.
The supermarket and top-selling Greek yogurt brand are now caught in a public battle in which Whole Foods has repeatedly defended its decision to phase out the leading industry product while Chobani has cast doubt on the retailer’s commitment to GMO labeling and organic products, calling it an excuse to kick out the main competitor to the store’s own 365 Everyday Value Greek Yogurt.Continue Reading
“No Greek yogurt is GMO-free; half of Whole Foods isn’t GMO-free,” said Peter McGuinness, Chobani’s chief marketing officer, in an interview with POLITICO. “This is not a GMO issue. I’m emphatic about this.”
“Why would you phase out the No. 1 Greek yogurt brand in America?” he continued. “I don’t know the answer to that question, but the Greek yogurt category is now booming and it’s very competitive.”
Chobani later qualified McGuiness’s statement by acknowledging that at least one manufacturer of Greek yogurt is promoting a new GMO-free line of products: Stoneyfield Farm.
In a surprising move, Whole Foods announced on Wednesday that it would start phasing out the Chobani product in 2014 as part of its effort to stop selling genetically engineered foods that aren’t labeled so over the next several years, The Wall Street Journal reported. Chobani claims to use all natural ingredients, but it sources dairy from cows that are fed genetically modified grain.
Still, the retailer’s decision to single out Chobani without giving a timeline for dropping similar brands with unlabeled GMO ingredients prompted some news outlets, such as The Washington Post, to question its motives.
Greek yogurt now makes up nearly half of all yogurt sold in the United States, and although Chobani has dominated sales, several other brands, including Whole Foods’ own, are looking to gain market share.
As the skepticism over its decision continued, Whole Foods acknowledged that its reasoning went beyond the GMO issue, although the company stopped short of saying it was to promote its own brand.
In a statement to POLITICO, a spokeswoman for Whole Foods said that although initial reports on the announcement focused on GMO labeling, the company’s rationale goes beyond that.
“Whole Foods Market is committed to offering shoppers the widest variety of high-quality products possible, including new items shoppers simply can’t find anywhere else,” the statement said. “As the national demand for Greek yogurt has grown, the number of conventional Greek yogurt options has multiplied.”
“Whole Foods Market challenged its Greek yogurt suppliers to create unique options for shoppers to enjoy – including exclusive flavors, non-GMO options and organic choices,” the statement continued. “At this time, Chobani has chosen a different business model, so Whole Foods Market will be phasing Chobani Greek Yogurt out of its stores in early 2014 to make room for product choices that aren’t readily available on the market.”
But, according to McGuinness, Whole Foods never gave Chobani an opportunity to come up with the kind of unique product offerings that the supermarket said it gave to all of its suppliers — not that the yogurt company would have created a special product just for Whole Foods, anyway, he said, given that the retailer makes up only 0.5 percent of Chobani’s sales.
“We have a different business model: We are inclusive; they are exclusive. … We’re for the 99 percent and they’re for the 1 percent,” he said.
The issue Chobani and other yogurt brands face in making their products organic or GMO-free is that finding cattle feed that isn’t made from GMO ingredients is difficult and costly, they say.
Despite some skepticism over Whole Foods’ motives, advocates of GMO labeling say they are excited to see the retailer take a big step toward its “Right to Know” commitment, which vowed to label all products containing GMOs in its U.S. and Canadian stores by 2018.
“We feel that consumer pressure is a big part of the labeling movement, and retailers like Whole Foods are responding to that,” said Katherine Paul, spokeswoman for the Organic Consumer Association, which advocated for labeling ballot initiatives in California and Washington state.
This is also not the first time Chobani has been singled out by members of the “good food movement,” which have disputed the company’s natural product claim because its yogurt isn’t GMO-free.
“It’s long overdue for retailers to recognize that Chobani has been overstating the claims it’s been marketing,” said Scott Faber, executive director of Just Label It.
However, Whole Foods didn’t specifically mention the natural claim in its reasoning to part ways with Chobani, and McGuinness said the company will continue to stand by the product label.
“Our phrasing is very specific, and we use only natural ingredients, and we completely stand by that claim,” he said. “There’s not enough organic milk to buy. GMO is not a Chobani issue, it’s a dairy issue.”
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