A U.S. Food and Drug Administration report says the Idaho State Department of Agriculture detected abnormalities in yogurt at a Chobani facility two months before the company issued a recall, but state officials say that's not true.
Chobani told grocery stores in late August to destroy 35 varieties of yogurt reported to have been contaminated by a mold associated with dairy products. More than 300 people reported getting sick after eating Greek yogurt produced in Twin Falls.
The FDA report obtained by the Times-News under a Freedom of Information Act request says a state lab technician spotted visible defects and a yeast-like growth developing in samples pulled from the factory line in July. The company then launched an equipment cleaning regimen and later did more testing that identified mold growth, according to the FDA report.
State officials deny the FDA's claim. Agriculture Department spokeswoman Pamela Juker said Thursday that state regulators never detected the yeast-like substance during the routine inspection in July and don't know where the FDA got its information.
Juker said the Department of Agriculture is only authorized to test yogurt products for the presence of coliform bacteria, and samples of finished product collected and tested by the state agency did not show visible signs of mold. She also said the FDA report did not rely on the agency's lab reports.
"All of the raw and finished product-testing results met the requirements of the Pasteurized Milk Ordinance," Juker said. "All of the tests we've done met the requirements."
Juker also said that since Chobani began making yogurt in Twin Falls in 2012, the company has met government standards for coliform.
Representatives of Chobani Inc. said the company's goal is to ensure the Idaho facility is a leader in size, cleanliness, quality and safety.
"To accomplish this, we have brought in significant resources and are working with internal as well as outside experts to put together one of the most advanced food safety and quality systems in our industry," Chobani said in a statement released by public relations firm Weber Shandwick.
According to the FDA report, the state did routine, quarterly sampling at the Chobani plant in July, and after the initial tests showed signs of the yeast-like growth, the department followed up with Chobani.
During that follow-up, the FDA report states, Chobani found its own quality samples were beginning to show signs of swelling. The company believed at that point that the problem was yeast, so it began an equipment cleaning regimen, according to the report, but when the problem didn't stop, additional testing was done which showed that mold was growing in the yogurt.
That discovery prompted a ceiling-to-floor cleaning at the plant, according to the FDA report, with equipment dismantled, cleaned, tested and re-cleaned if necessary.
No link was ever confirmed between the illnesses and the yogurt, but the company, working with the FDA, issued a voluntary recall.
Clarification: The AP originally reported that the FDA report noted that the Idaho Department of Agriculture spotted moldy yogurt during a routine inspection at the Chobani facility in Twin Falls. The AP has clarified this story to note that the FDA report stated that the Idaho lab technician detected problems and a yeast-like growth in the samples.