The Magazine

Total Recall

Max Boot, yogurt snob.

Oct 4, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 04 • By MAX BOOT
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PUNDITS normally chew over the world's great ills--war, famine, terrorism, Michael Moore, and the like. But sometimes a smaller matter sticks in the craw and demands attention. This is such a time. The actions of petty-minded government bureaucrats have left a bad taste in my mouth. Literally.

The subject of my ire? The government's moves to deprive the American people--specifically this American person--of a commodity that is essential to my pursuit of happiness. I am about to be bereft of the most important ingredient of my "most important meal of the day."

I speak of yogurt. But not just any yogurt. Total is the best damn yogurt on the planet. It's made by an 84-year-old Greek firm called Fage, and it puts to shame the run-of-the-mill competitors that take up so much space on supermarket shelves. Most yogurts are wet, even runny, and faintly evocative of chemicals. For years, I ate a high-end "organic" American brand, not because it tasted good (it didn't) but simply to avoid the calories and cholesterol of a traditional breakfast.

Then last spring, staying at a country inn in Belgium, I had my introduction to the Greeks' nobler yogurt, a substance without the slightest kinship to that thin gruel. Coming home to New York, I sought to replicate it. I scoured the city until I succeeded in finding Total here.

Part of the beauty of this wonderful substance is that it's strained, so as to be mercifully free of the water that accumulates at the top of your everyday yogurt container. It has nearly the consistency and taste of Devon cream. Add a dollop of fine jam, and even in its plain, nonfat incarnation, it far outdoes its competitors' high-fat varieties (though I concede it also costs more).

Over the past few months, I've become a true believer. Imagine my distress, then, to find at my local Trader Joe's last weekend a sign posted on the dairy case announcing that Total was totally absent by order of the Food and Drug Administration.

I felt like a crack addict forced to go cold turkey. As soon as Monday morning rolled around, I placed a desperate call to my dealer to find out what on Earth was going on.

Antonios Maridakis, general manager of Fage USA, explained to me by phone from Athens what had happened. A competitor apparently had tipped off the FDA that Total lacked a requisite Interstate Milk Shipment certificate. These are issued by the states but enforced by the feds. (Which competitor, I'd like to know--so I can organize a boycott.) As it happens, Fage became aware that it needed to jump through this bureaucratic hoop shortly after it started selling in the United States four years ago, but the company couldn't convince any state to send inspectors to Greece to verify the safety of its procedures.

You'd think this would be superfluous in any case, since the European Union has food safety regulations every bit as strict, if not stricter, than those here. But then, the point of such rules isn't really to protect public health. It's to protect the domestic dairy industry. Which is precisely what the rules have done in this case, at the cost of alienating consumers--or at least this consumer.

There are wider ramifications here. The United States has been fighting to gain access for genetically modified American foodstuffs into the European market. We are not helping our own cause by discriminating against European yogurt--or against unpasteurized European cheese, another delicious import that has drawn the ire of American regulators. "We are talking about fair trade issues," Maridakis says, "and I don't see anything fair here."

After Total was yanked off store shelves in late August, the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets finally agreed to send inspectors to Greece (at Fage's expense, naturally). They're due to arrive in mid-October, and, assuming everything is ship-shape, Total will eventually return to stores in New York and other states.

But between now and then, a crisis looms. I've cleaned the local food shops out of Total, and I expect to use up my stash by the end of the month. Then what will I eat for breakfast? Gulp.

Remarkably, this impending catastrophe seems to have escaped the notice of the presidential candidates, who insist on devoting their campaigns to indigestible matters like the economy and the war on terrorism. Personally, I'm hungry for the candidates to enter the culture wars--the yogurt culture wars. My vote, I'll have them know, can be purchased with a 5.3-ounce container of creamy white ambrosia.

--Max Boot