Go real-istic: a timeline of the Chobani crowdsourced recall

As I was writing yesterday’s post about the “non-recall recall” by Chobani of some of its Greek yogurt, I wondered briefly how this all started. Who actually took the time to explore, research, and investigate this, and then pulled it together for the rest of us? Watching more of the Twitter stream today, there was the answer at 9:17 am from John Sowell, self-described as a public safety reporter at the Idaho Statesman:

John Sowell ‏@IDS_Sowell
Six days after I broke the story that stores removed Chobani yogurt from shelves, the company admits to a recall.

His story, Chobani yogurt removed from store shelves, was published on September 1st (Sunday).

He had spent the previous day tracing the problem back: “The first three complaints questioning yogurt quality were posted Aug. 22 on Chobani’s Facebook page.” That was ten (10) days prior to his published story, and there were other complaints subsequent to those first three from which he quoted.

I only started following all this on Wednesday afternoon, but at that time Chobani was in quasi-denial, for example, in this reply: “@foodscitech No recall here!” A search on Twitter for the combination @Chobani and the phrase “no recall here” yields about 80 tweets on September 4th (Wednesday) that begin with that exclamatory phrase. The last one is at 6:00 pm, which presumably is the demarcation between unreal (“No recall here!”) and real (Oooops, well maybe we should issue just a little one — my words, not Chobani’s).

Going farther back, the denial is there still earlier — two tweets on the 3rd, one on the 2nd, and one on the 1st. Here is that very first one on Sunday (the 1st) at 11:01 pm:

@tcruzmo No recall here. For more information check out our blog post. We’re glad you got in touch with us! http://cho.ba/19Zp0vD

It does make you wonder if @tcruzmo had read the Idaho Statesman earlier in the day, doesn’t it? [Update on September 7th: Alas, nothing that dramatic. @tcruzmo subsequently indicated receipt on the 1st of an email mentioning a “Class III recall.”]

At the end of that same week (August 30th), Spartan Stores of Grand Rapids, MI, added a list of about 50 Chobani products to the “Recent Recalls” page on the websites of all six of its supermarket brands — D&W Fresh Market, Family Fare, Glen’s Fresh Market, Glen’s Market, ValuLand, VG’s Fresh Market, and VG’s Grocery, numbering collectively nearly 100 stores. As an example, here is the page for D&W Fresh Market (10 stores). The list is followed by an explanatory paragraph that begins with this sentence:

Chobani has issued a voluntary product withdrawal of Chobani products manufactured at the Twin Falls, Idaho facility due to premature swelling or bloating.

As an aside, I can’t help asking this irreverent question: Would there be some timing for or version of “swelling or bloating” that would not be “premature” and hence by implication could be deemed acceptable?…

Now return to mid-week and, according to Candace Choi’s article on Thursday in the Huffington Post, “the Food and Drug Administration said Wednesday that it was in talks with the company about the matter.” That would be September 4th, at the height of the “No recall here!” mantra. On Thursday morning, she (@candacechoi) tweeted that “Chobani CEO tells me it was company’s decision to enact a recall. But did not know if FDA first reached out to company or vice versa.”

For the record, here is the FDA’s posting of Chobani’s “Recall — Firm Press Release,” dated September 5 [Thursday] and entitled “Chobani, Inc. Voluntarily Recalls Greek Yogurt Because of Product Concerns.” So now there is a definitive answer to the rhetorical question on Chobani’s website, “What is real?”: the recall.

At least two lawyers who were watching and tweeting weighed in, hinting (or more) at legal issues. Michele Simon (‏@MicheleRSimon) tweeted “lawyers at work (being one I can smell it). Prob worried about legal implications of ‘recall’ http://www.fda.gov/Safety/Recalls/ucm165546.htm”; and Bill Marler offered 140+ characters on his blog: Chobani, here is the difference between a Recall and a Withdrawal and some Questions, which begins with the phrase “According to the FDA….”

They are understandably seeing the world through law-colored glasses, and I don’t doubt the role, however much behind-the-scenes, of the FDA. But, as I said in my previous post, this was arguably the world’s first crowdsourced recall (at least by that name). It is very unlikely that all of this would have happened on the timescale that it did without the visible, strident, sustained commentary — and embarrassment for Chobani — on Twitter and Facebook (unless there had been some serious public health impact to speed up the result, which thankfully seems to have been absent).

For clarity and emphasis, here is a recap of that timescale:
• August 22, first customer comments or complaints on Facebook;
• August 30, Spartan Stores announce Chobani’s “voluntary product withdrawal”
• September 1, John Sowell’s story in the Idaho Statesman
• September 1, first tweet using “recall” re: Chobani
• September 4, revelation of FDA “in talks” with Chobani
• September 4, cessation of “No recall here!” mantra
• September 5, press release from Chobani on voluntary recall

To put the Twitter stream in perspective, here it is for the past month with data for “Chobani” (orange) and “Chobani recall” (blue) taken earlier today from Topsy (but note that the right-hand most datapoint is for the 5th, not the 6th):


[click on the image above for a larger version]

As I said in a tweet earlier today, the “pressure” had been building since Monday, and not just in Chobani’s cups. Nothing to do with the FDA, though we should be glad they were also active. But the larger implication is clear: In the social media era, if you manufacture things we put in or on our bodies, it would behoove you to pay real-time, fine-grained attention to your customers, as well as long-term attention to rules and regulations. Otherwise, you are liable to be awarded a de facto crowdsourced recall (or similar penalty) instead of being able to wait for or even avoid a de jure one.

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