One major winner of Whole Foods' decision to stop selling Chobani yogurt in early 2014 is Stonyfield Farm, which just started distributing an exclusive Greek yogurt line to the grocery-chain two weeks ago, chairman and co-founder Gary Hirshberg said to BuzzFeed.
The Wall Street Journal reported earlier today that Whole Foods will stop selling Chobani yogurt by early 2014 to make room for more organic and GMO-free brands. The grocery chain has said it aims to stop selling food containing genetically-modified organisms, at least without being labeled as such, by 2018. The split with Chobani is a big deal, given the Greek yogurt brand's massive popularity in the U.S. — it makes about $1 billion in annual retail sales.
Stonyfield, the smaller organic yogurt maker owned by Danone, started developing an exclusive Greek yogurt line under the label Brown Cow for Whole Foods this summer, sequestering a supply chain of milk that's "totally GMO-free," Hirshberg tells BuzzFeed. He says he didn't know about Whole Foods' plan to drop Chobani, which was "a shocking bit of news."
"I'm now starting to see the connection," said Hirshberg, who also chairs the Just Label It movement, which advocates for the government-mandated implementation of labels that show if foods contain GMOs. "It's an incredibly smart business strategy for Whole Foods. It positions them as being truly responsive to consumer needs."
While Chobani says its yogurt contains only natural ingredients, the company has come under fire from consumer advocacy groups for using milk that comes from cows fed with GMO animal feed, according to the Journal. Consumers have showed interest in labels indicating whether foods contain GMOs, though large food companies and agricultural chemical and seed companies have sought to suppress those.
Consumers often believe, because of the way Greek yogurt is marketed, that it is already organic, Hirshberg said. He estimates Greek yogurt accounts for $900 million of the $2.5 billion U.S. yogurt market.
"This is not anti-GMO, necessarily, this is pro-transparency," said Hirshberg. "This is a mega-trend out there."
The distribution through Whole Foods is tremendous for Stonyfield, and for the broader labeling movement, he said.
"Our mission has always been more than selling yogurt, but changing the way people think about food and farms and the environment and so on," he said. "Whole Foods has a strategy for 1,000 stores, they're a big player — when they do this, it really puts wind behind our sails. It's really exciting, really vindicating and we're obviously very happy to partner with them."