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Chobani yogurt on school lunch menus, weeks after mold forces recall

FILE - In this Jan. 13, 2012 photo, Chobani Greek Yogurt is seen at the Chobani plant in South Edmeston, N.Y. The recent yogurt boom of upstate New Yo...
Chobani yogurt will be served through school lunch programs in four states, federal officials say. The company was awarded a pilot project contract about six weeks before problems with mold forced a national retail recall.Mike Groll / AP

School lunch programs in four states will be dishing up Chobani Greek yogurt to kids, weeks after problems with mold and complaints of illness forced the firm to launch a nationwide recall.

Some 230 New York school districts have ordered more than 3,300 cases of Chobani products, while Idaho schools have requested more than 3,400 cases, school officials said.

Those states, along with Arizona and Tennessee, are part of a new U.S. Department of Agriculture pilot project to test the use of Greek-style yogurt as a healthy, high-protein addition to the National School Lunch Program.

The yogurt set for schools isn’t affected by the Sept. 5 Chobani recall, state and federal officials said. It won’t arrive for another couple of weeks and it’s being made in the firm's New York plant, not the Twin Falls, Idaho, site where company officials detected mold after receiving consumer reports of bubbling, bulging cartons of yogurt. At least 223 complaints of illness tied to the recalled yogurt have been reported to the Food and Drug Administration, though they haven't been confirmed. 

"USDA is aware of the situation and will work with the company to ensure products delivered to schools are healthy and safe," said agency spokeswoman Brooke Hardison. 

Amy Juaristi, a Chobani spokeswoman, said the pilot project is moving forward as planned. 

"There is no concern regarding the recall," she told NBC News in an email. 

But the timing is awkward after Chobani, the nation’s top-selling Greek yogurt, was chosen as the winning bidder by the USDA on July 26, about six weeks before the firm started hearing complaints about spoiled retail yogurt cartons and sick customers.

Chobani submitted the lowest bids to USDA, beating out four other vendors to supply Greek yogurt to the schools, agency records show. Under the contract, Chobani will supply 199,800 pounds of yogurt and receive $279,720.

The arrangement includes 4-ounce single-serve containers of flavored yogurt as well as unflavored yogurt in 32-ounce containers that schools can use for a variety of dishes from parfaits to salad dressings.

Chobani officials have said the problem in the Idaho plant has been fixed and that the firm has increased its already stringent cleaning protocols to address the mold, Mucor circinelloides. It can cause spoilage in plants and isn’t likely to cause illness in people except for those who may have compromised immune systems, experts say.

FDA officials conducted an inspection of the Idaho plant on Sept. 5 and did not issue a Form 483, the agency’s list of significant objections.

“As far as we know, we did inspect and we did not find anything,” said FDA spokeswoman Shelly Burgess, who added that the investigation remains open.

The NSLP serves more than 31 million children in 100,000 public and private schools and child care centers at a federal cost of about $11 billion a year.  

The push to add Greek yogurt to the National School Lunch Program was championed by U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer and Sen. Kristen Gillibrand and by Rep. Richard Hanna, all of New York.

“This is the next step in ensuring that New York school children have access to a more nutritious, protein-rich product, which benefits our New York Greek yogurt producers and dairy farmers to boot,” Schumer said.

He didn’t immediately respond to NBC News questions about the impact of the Chobani recall. 

A spokeswoman for Gillibrand noted that the senator wrote and passed the Safe Food for Schools Act, passed as part of the Child Nutrition Act, after a government report in 2010 showed that recalled food was being served in school cafeterias. It requires federal agencies to send "proper" alerts to schools when food recalls occur.

JoNel Aleccia is a senior health reporter with NBC News. Reach her on Twitter at @JoNel_Aleccia or send her an email.