September 14, 2009

Danone, Pioneer in New World of Kosher, Loses its Founder

It was in the early ‘90’s, a time when a whole new world of kosher was coming into its own. Yosi Heber, then a marketing director at the US Dannon company, finally convinced his bosses that it was time to convert a generic “k” to an OU with the obvious exception of those products that used animal based gelatin. The company made the change and it virtually took the whole food industry with it. Dannon was able to document that in a period of less than a year, Dannon had earned $2 million as a result of its OU certification. Given its background, it is no wonder that Dannon took that historic step.

Last week, we learned of the death of Danny Carasso, the honorary chairman of Danone. When his father, Isaac, created the yogurt in Barcelona in 1919, he named it after his son, whose nickname in Catalan was Danon, or Danny. From this small start-up operation Daniel Carasso developed a global business, beginning in France in 1929, expanding to the United States during World War II and eventually reaching markets as far-flung as Mexico, Brazil and Morocco. Mr. Carasso was born in Thessalonika, Greece, where his Sephardic family had settled four centuries earlier after the Jews were driven out of Spain. In 1916 his father took the family back to Spain, where he became disturbed by the high incidence of intestinal disorders, especially among children.

Isaac Carasso began studying the work of Metchnikoff, the Russian microbiologist who believed that human life could be extended by introducing lactic-acid bacilli, found in yogurt and sour milk, into the digestive system. Using cultures developed at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, Isaac began producing Danone. In 1941 he fled the Nazis and arrived in the United States. There he formed a partnership with two family friends, Joe Metzger, a Swiss-born Spanish businessman, and his son Juan, whose flair for marketing would make Dannon a household name in the United States. Mr. Carasso returned to Europe after the war to restart Danone in Spain and France. He then embarked on an aggressive campaign to expand the business by establishing Danone plants in other countries and merging with other food companies. The rest, as they say, is history. Of all the major US food manufacturers, who would have thought that the world’s leading yogurt manufacturer was a refugee from the Nazis.