News on the benzene-in-softdrinks front (for background see here, here, here, here, here and the Environmental Working Group site). The dominoes are starting to fall and the first was a big one, Coca Cola:
Consumer lawyers and The Coca-Cola Company announced today a legal settlement involving Fanta Pineapple and Vault Zero products.
“We are very pleased to join with The Coca-Cola Company in announcing this settlement,” said Boston attorney Andrew Rainer and Florida attorney and Northeastern University Law and Policy Professor Tim Howard, who represented the consumers.
Although the FDA and other food safety authorities have reiterated that there is no known health risk to consumers from the benzene levels found in soft drinks, the Coca-Cola Company has recently reformulated its Vault Zero and Fanta Pineapple products to minimize or eliminate possibility that those products can form benzene.
Products labeled with a best-buy date of January 2008 or later are the reformulated Vault Zero and Fanta Pineapple products.
The Coca-Cola Company also agreed through the settlement to make available on its website a program for the refund or replacement of products. Information and details concerning this program are available by calling 1-800-438-2653 or at www.thecoca-colacompany.com. (Public statement on settlement by the involved parties)
The story isn’t over, however, because there are other companies who so far refuse to settle: beverage makers Pepsi, Sunny Delight, Shasta, Rockstar, Polar and retailers Safeway and Publix:
In the wake of Coca Cola?s settlement of litigation related to the presence of benzene in popular soft drinks, parents and their attorneys called upon the remaining defendants — including soft drink giant PepsiCo and youth beverage companies Sunny Delight, Shasta and Rockstar — to reformulate their beverages, remove potentially harmful product from store shelves, and offer refunds to consumers who purchased beverages with ingredients that can combine to form benzene, a known carcinogen.
Hundreds of million of bottles of the soft drinks were sold each year — Pepsi sold more than 200 million bottles of Diet Wild Cherry Pepsi in 2006 alone. Diet Wild Cherry Pepsi, Sunny D Baja Orange, and other products with the hazardous ingredients are still on store shelves.
The two ingredients, ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) and sodium benzoate, can combine to form benzene when exposed to heat or light. Tests of the products by both the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and private parties found benzene levels that were far higher than the maximum levels of 5 parts per billion set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for benzene in drinking water. Diet Wild Cherry Pepsi, Sunny Delight Baja Berry, Polar Diet Orange Dry, and Shasta Orange were all tested and found to have benzene levels more than three times the EPA standard. EPA has stated that the safe level of benzene in drinking water is zero. (Press Release from plaintiffs)
The presence of benzene at levels above what would be allowed in a community drinking water supply is unacceptable from both the public health and the political perspective, as Coca Cola realizes. The amounts of benzene varies and is apparently related to the storage conditions and formulation of a particular bottle, but the levels are often two to three or more times the drinking water standard. Benzene is a known human carcinogen, and while the levels are in the part per billion range, there are good public health reasons that the EPA’s recommended level in drinking water is zero (see our posts on this topic here, here and here).
Three of the remaining defendants make drinks marketed directly to children — Sunny Delight, Shasta and Rockstar Energy Drinks. We love to wring our hands about imported pet food adulterated with melamine from China (see here and here), but food safety is also a problem for American and European companies. If I had to choose between melamine and benzene, I think I’d take melamine.
But why should I have to choose?