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US civil war over its new fav food: yoghurt

world Updated: Oct 23, 2009 02:05 IST
Holly Ramer
Holly Ramer
Hindustan Times
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As a growing number of manufacturers compete to meet consumer demand for thick, tangy Greek-style yogurt, it’s not only the yogurt that’s getting strained.

For most of the last decade, a Greek dairy company dominated the US market for the yogurt, which is produced by straining out the liquid whey from conventional yogurt. But as the product caught on, competitors cropped up, including New Hampshire-based Stonyfield Farm, the country’s largest organic yogurt company.

Now that competition is playing out in federal court. It’s hardly the stuff of Greek tragedy, but as one judge put it: “This case involves a dispute among yogurt manufacturers over a relationship gone sour.”

When Stonyfield launched its Greek-style yogurt, “Oikos,” in 2007, the market was mostly cornered by the Greek company Fage (pronounced FA-yeh). So Stonyfield teamed up with Agro-Farma Inc., whose Turkish-born owner, Hamdi Ulukaya, already owned a feta cheese company and was looking into producing Greek-style yogurt. But in late 2008, Oikos disappeared from grocery store shelves for a month. On its Web site, Stonyfield blamed a glitch as it increased production.

Court documents tell another story. Stonyfield claims Agro-Farma delivered a bad batch of yogurt, then illegally terminated their relationship. In a countersuit, Agro-Farma, which now produces its own Greek-style yogurt called Chobani, claims Stonyfield stole its yogurt-making secrets and handed them to another manufacturer.

The fierce competition is no surprise given yogurt’s status as “the food of the decade,” said Harry Balzar, vice president of consumer research firm NPD Group. The number of Americans who eat yogurt regularly has increased 75 per cent during the last decade, he said.

“For the last 10 years, nothing has increased as much as yogurt,” he said. “It’s a category that’s growing at breakfast, lunch, supper. It’s a main dish, it’s a side dish, it’s a dessert.” AP