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The benzene trail

By Chris Mercer , 06-Mar-2006

The gamble by US authorities 15 years ago to let the industry deal with benzene residues in soft drinks has failed, and instead only kept those who needed to know in the dark.

Chemists from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said they were surprised that recent tests showed benzene levels in some soft drinks above the country's legal limit for drinking water.

They were not surprised, however, to hear the suspected source of the problem was two common ingredients regularly used in soft drink formulas - sodium benzoate and ascorbic acid (vitamin C).

That is because both the FDA and US soft drinks association have known about this for 15 years, as testified by an internal FDA memo, dated January 1991.

Now, the FDA's discovery that some soft drinks still contain benzene above the US water limit, broken in February by a BeverageDaily.com investigation, shows how the decision to keep the issue private has gone badly wrong.

One FDA chemist, who was also at the meetings with industry in 1990, told BeverageDaily the industry had agreed to "get the word out and reformulate". No public announcement was, therefore, ever made.

Still, both an FDA chemist and the US soft drinks association have admitted it was entirely possible that some soft drinks firms might not know of the potential for sodium benzoate and ascorbic acid to cause benzene formation in drinks.

Benzene is listed as a known carcinogen by the FDA itself. Yet, the agency has set no maximum limit for benzene in soft drinks and only re-opened its investigation of the issue after a concerned industry whistleblower had paid for independent testing.

Industry and regulatory authorities have assured there is no immediate risk to consumers' health from drinks containing benzene at the levels found to date.

But, BeverageDaily has discovered the reaction between ascorbic acid and sodium benzoate was causing enough benzene in drinks in 1990 for companies to change their formulas. And, there is uncertainty over how much a drink's exposure to heat can exacerbate the problem.

The communication breakdown broadens outside the US.

The FDA's new investigation has led to Britain's Food Standards Agency discovering soft drinks containing benzene above the UK's strict one part per billion limit for drinking water. It is unclear how long this situation has existed for.

In fact, few food safety authorities in Europe appear to have been officially aware that benzene could form in drinks containing sodium benzoate and ascorbic acid.

In Europe alone this, until a couple of weeks ago, at least included authorities in Germany, UK, Belgium and Denmark. The UK's FSA actually checked foods to monitor sodium benzoate content last autumn, but no check was made for benzene.

The European Commission was in the dark too. A letter from the Commission in December, seen by BeverageDaily, states it "is not aware of any scientific evidence relating to the formation of benzene as a result of the use of benzoic acid".

In itself this is curious. Glen Lawrence, a scientist who helped the FDA with testing back in 1990, published a journal article in 1993 detailing how sodium benzoate could break down to form benzene in drinks also containing ascorbic acid.

Yet, authorities' lack of 'official' knowledge has spun a web of complications.

It means there is no regulatory framework in place for monitoring benzene levels in soft drinks, which means those charged with protecting consumer safety and regulating product quality cannot do their jobs.

Product lists show more than 1,500 soft drinks containing sodium benzoate and ascorbic acid or citric acid have been launched across Europe, North America and Latin America since January 2002.

In Britain, the Soft Drinks Association says the industry has tests to check for benzene. That is fine and commendable, but the FSA's job is not to test drinks for the industry; it is to make sure tests are being done and levels are acceptable.

The fact that no national guidelines exist on the acceptable level of benzene in soft drinks compounds the problem.

Both the American and British soft drinks associations have said the limit for drinking water - five and one parts per billion in US and UK respectively - is not applicable to soft drinks.

But, their stance may be hard to justify to consumers, notably because water is a main ingredient of nearly every soft drink. One food legislation expert in the UK told BeverageDaily any court investigating the issue would likely look to the water limit in the absence of a specific limit for soft drinks.

If there is one lesson to learn from all this, it is that a lack of openness over benzene in soft drinks in the US in 1990, means a problem that could have been dealt with has never properly gone away.

Now, as food safety bodies in several countries around the world scramble to find out what has been known by some for 15 years, benzene threatens to become another public relations nightmare for the soft drinks industry.

Ironically, that is exactly what the private deal in 1991 attempted to avoid. An internal FDA memo from December 1990 tells of how soft drinks firms "expressed concern about the presence of benzene traces in their products and the potential for adverse publicity associated with this problem".

Chris Mercer is editor on BeverageDaily.com and DairyReporter.com. He was the first to break the current story on benzene in soft drinks that has now attracted attention from major media organisations around the world. He has also worked as a freelance writer and researcher for BBC and Sunday Telegraph. Send any comments to chris.mercer@decisionnews.com .

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