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Coca-Cola tests soft drinks for benzene

By Chris Mercer , 20-Mar-2006

Coca-Cola said it was testing its soft drinks around the world for benzene, as the group sought to reassure consumers that soft drinks were only a very small contributor to daily benzene intake.

The soft drinks giant said in a statement it was testing products globally for benzene levels, one month after the US Food and Drug Administration revealed to it had found some drinks containing benzene above the legal limit for water in the US.

Benzene is listed as a known carcinogen, although the FDA assured it did not present an immediate health risk at the levels found to date in drinks.

Coca-Cola said it had tested drinks for benzene in the past, and stated "unequivocally that our products are safe". It did not deny some of its drinks contained benzene traces.

"Consumers around the world invite us into their lives more than one billion times a day; we take this relationship and responsibility very seriously," the group said.

America's soft drinks association, which counts Coca-Cola as a member, has been aware for 15 years that two common ingredients - sodium benzoate and ascorbic acid (vitamin C) - could react to form benzene in drinks, according to official sources and an internal FDA memo dated January 1991.

Michael Knowles, director of scientific and regulatory affairs at Coca-Cola Europe, told that soft drinks makers had learnt to control benzene formation in drinks containing ascorbic acid and sodium benzoate. "We know how it is formed and we know how we can minimise the formation."

Knowles said soft drinks companies made a value judgement to use sodium benzoate because of its strong ability to kill off bacteria in drinks. He said the preservative's benefits outweighed the risks and consumers needed to understand this.

Coca-Cola said people got most of their benzene from breathing in traffic fumes as they walked down the street.

But, the potential for sodium benzoate and ascorbic acid to cause benzene in drinks was never announced to the public. And, the return of the problem, as cited by the FDA, indicates a communication breakdown in the industry.

A soft drinks association spokesperson said it was possible the message had been lost, even though an FDA chemist told BeverageDaily the industry had promised to "get the word out and reformulate" back in 1991.

Coca-Cola said on Friday: "We are working in conjunction with the industry and regulatory authorities to provide data and background and to lower even further the already safe amounts of benzene in certain products."

Both the UK and US soft drinks associations said the limit for benzene in drinking water was not applicable for soft drinks.

There is no specific benzene limit for soft drinks, and water limits range from 10 parts per billion (World Health Organisation), 5ppb in the US and one part per billion in the EU.

Recent Industry testing on 230 drinks in the UK, commissioned by the country's Foods Standards Agency, found average benzene levels above the strict limit for drinking water in the EU.

A UK food legislation expert told any court would likely look to the drinking water limit for guidance if considering benzene in soft drinks. Water is still the main ingredient in most soft drinks.

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