Daniel Carasso, 103, pioneer in yogurt industry through Dannon

By William Grimes
New York Times / May 22, 2009
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NEW YORK - Daniel Carasso, who helped turn yogurt from an obscure ethnic food into an international staple through the Danone brand in Europe and Dannon in the United States, died Sunday at his home in Paris. He was 103.

The Danone brand owes nearly everything to Mr. Carasso, including its name. 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. "My dream was to make Danone a worldwide brand," he said at a news conference in April to celebrate Danone's 90th anniversary.

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 Elie 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.

At the time, yogurt was exotic. Although a traditional food in Greece, the Middle East, southeastern Europe, and large parts of Asia, it was known elsewhere only to a small population of health faddists. Early on, Danone was marketed as a health food and sold by prescription through pharmacies. Gradually it found favor as a milk product that did not spoil in the heat.

In 1923 Daniel Carasso enrolled in business school in Marseille and, the better to understand yogurt, took a training course in bacteriology at the Pasteur Institute.

In 1929 he planted the Danone flag in France, just in time for the worldwide business slump. "I barely realized that there was a financial crisis raging around me," he said at a news conference in April. "I was too caught up in trying to find dairy stores to sell my product."

His efforts paid off, as the French took to this newfangled food, but in 1941 the arrival of the Nazis forced him to flee to 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 and the Metzgers bought Oxy-Gala, a small Greek yogurt company in the Bronx, and in October 1942 began producing unflavored yogurt in half-pint glass bottles under the Americanized name Dannon.

Customers paid 11 cents and a 3-cent deposit. Juan washed out the returns. "We only sold $20 worth a day, but even then we were the bigger of the two companies in the business," Juan Metzger, who died in 1998, told People magazine in 1980. (Joe Metzger had died in 1965.)

The little company operated at a loss until 1947, when, in a concession to the American sweet tooth, strawberry jam was added to the yogurt. Sales took off, new flavors were added to the product line, and Dannon yogurt made the leap from specialty product to snack food and dessert. In 1959 the company was bought by Beatrice Foods.

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. It acquired the fresh-cheese company Gervais in 1967 and in 1973 merged with the bottle maker BSN, which was eager to expand the food side of its business.

The new company, BSN-Gervais Danone, bought Dannon from Beatrice Foods in 1981 and changed its name to Groupe Danone two years later. One of France's largest food conglomerates, with revenue of nearly $19 billion in 2008, it ranks first in the world in sales of fresh dairy products and second in sales of bottled water and baby foods.

Mr. Carasso leaves a daughter, Marina Nahmias, four grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren.