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Yogurt wars: Schumer, Chobani press to get dairy product to Sochi Olympics

The Russian government has blocked Greek yogurt maker Chobani from delivering product to the U.S. Olympians citing food safety reasons. (Reuters)

America’s most famous load of yogurt — a shipment intended to feed U.S. Olympians in Sochi, but blocked by Russian authorities — remained in storage in New Jersey on Thursday, despite the best efforts of a senator and the Department of Agriculture to spring it loose.

The yogurt at the center of this fight was made by Chobani in Upstate New York. According to Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), it was supposed to be shipped to Sochi last weekend.

But it wasn’t.

Thus began an epic story of a dairy product denied its destiny. And, also, of a senator and a yogurt company that saw a good opportunity to be mentioned on television.

“The Russian Authorities should get past ‘nyet,’ ” Schumer said in a statement this week, “and let this prime sponsor of the U.S. Olympic Team deliver their protein-packed food to our athletes.”

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The yogurt in question includes 5,000 single-serve containers of Greek yogurt in strawberry, blueberry and peach flavors, as well as large cups of plain yogurt for smoothies. Chobani says it was intended “to naturally power our athletes all the way to the finish line” in Sochi. A Schumer staffer said the yogurt was also to be eaten by NBC television employees.

But there was a problem. Russia doesn’t allow the importation of American yogurt. Any yogurt.

The U.S. government is involved in a long-running negotiation with Russia and Russia’s two partners in the Eurasian Customs Union — Belarus and Kazakhstan — about the public-health standards that American dairy products must meet.

They have not resolved it yet. So no yogurt gets in. Still, with the Olympics coming, Chobani apparently wanted to try anyway.

It didn’t work.

Blocked by Russian officials, the yogurt is now kept in a ­climate-controlled warehouse in Newark. The company’s best hope now is for Russia to grant a special kind of permission so that the yogurt can be shipped directly to the Olympic Village for American consumption.

Schumer made a special plea to Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak: “I understand the need for high food safety standards for dairy products,” Schumer wrote. “However, the U.S. government has confirmed that sanitary standards have been met to ensure that this yogurt will be safe for consumption by American Citizens attending and participating in the 2014 Winter Olympics.”

On Thursday, the Russian Embassy in Washington issued a statement that blamed the U.S. side for the problem. It said the Agriculture Department had still not supplied the paperwork necessary to make an exception. “Unfortunately,” the embassy statement said, in an apparent jab at Schumer, “the technical issue of product certification supervised by the state veterinary inspection received a political tone.”

The Olympics, of course, begin Friday in Russia. But, for the yogurt, there is still time.

If the import permission is ever granted, a Chobani official said, the company will put the food on a plane.

David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.

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