ALBANY, N.Y. – American athletes in Sochi are facing breakfast without their team-sponsoring Greek yogurt, thanks to a bureaucratic web of international trade negotiations.
Team USA sponsor Chobani, which is based in upstate New York, says it has 5,000 cups of Greek yogurt sitting in a refrigerated warehouse waiting to be flown to the Olympic village. But Russian authorities say the U.S. Department of Agriculture has refused to provide a certificate that is required for dairy products under its customs rules.
U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat and a big booster of the state’s burgeoning Greek yogurt industry, this week implored the Russians to snip the red tape and let the shipment through. He said export trade rules should have nothing to do with it, since the yogurt isn’t for sale and is to be eaten only by U.S. citizens in Sochi.
“Chobani yogurt is safe, nutritious and delicious, and the Russian authorities should get past ‘nyet’ and let this prime sponsor of the U.S. Olympic team deliver their protein-packed food to our athletes and media workers,” Schumer said in a statement Tuesday.
As of Thursday, the situation remained at an impasse.
The Russian Federal Service for Veterinary and Phytosanitary Surveillance put out a statement saying U.S. authorities had failed to provide a veterinary certificate that is required by Russia and other members of the Customs Union, an economic grouping that also includes Belarus and Kazakhstan.
“The presence of such certificate accompanying each shipment of imported products is required by Russian law,” it said. “For milk and dairy products … it’s Certificate No. 28.”
The Russian agency said U.S. officials refused to use the certificate for the shipment to Sochi, saying such a move could have a negative impact on future trade talks.
A USDA spokeswoman said the agency is trying to work out an acceptable solution to allow the Chobani shipment.
“We strongly urge Russia to help our U.S. company resolve this issue expeditiously so that our Olympic athletes have access to these products,” said the USDA’s Courtney Rowe.
On Wednesday, Chobani became the third U.S. Olympic Committee sponsor to explicitly condemn Russia’s so-called anti-gay law this week.
“It’s disappointing that in 2014 this is still an issue,” said Chobani’s CEO, Hamdi Ulukaya.
The Sochi standoff isn’t Chobani’s only international struggle. Last week, a British appeals court sided with rival Fage, a Greek company, and said Chobani can’t label its products “Greek” in Britain because they’re made in America. Chobani has said it will appeal again.
Chobani, the No. 1 Greek yogurt brand in the U.S., faces intense competitive pressure at home from Danone, the largest yogurt maker in Russia and the world. Chobani ratcheted up the competition with Danone’s Dannon Oikos brand with dueling Super Bowl ads.
France-based Danone was one of the first foreign companies to invest in the Russian economy after the breakup of the Soviet Union. It has invested more than $1.6 billion in the country, including building 20 plants and financing new dairy farms to supply them with milk.
Chobani suffered a couple of setbacks last year.
The grocery store chain Whole Foods announced that it would stop carrying Chobani yogurt in 2014 because it’s phasing out items that contain genetically modified ingredients and is focusing more on products not commonly found in most supermarkets.
That followed Chobani’s recall earlier last year of some of its Greek yogurt cups due to a mould contamination.
Writers Vladimir Isachenkov from Moscow and Mary Clare Jalonick in Washington contributed to this story.