Dasani, the tap water bottled by Coca-Cola and marketed as specially pure with a huge publicity campaign, was withdrawn from the market yesterday after impurities were found to have been introduced in the production process.
The water, which was launched two weeks ago, labeled prominently as "pure" and referred to by Coke executives as "as pure as bottled water gets", was found to have illegally high levels of bromate, a chemical which the Food Standards Agency said could lead to an increased risk of cancer.
The company said that the bromate had been formed during the production process for bottling the water at its plant in Sidcup, south-east London. Last night it was withdrawing all 500,000 bottles of Dasani - sales of which had been expected to reach £35m in its first year - which had arrived on high-street shelves.
The fiasco meant the collapse of Coke's attempt, with a £7m high-profile publicity campaign, to break into Britain's burgeoning bottled water market, which is worth more than £1bn a year and growing by 20 per cent annually.
Executives at the Coca-Cola (Great Britain) headquarters in Hammersmith, west London, were horrified by the PR catastrophe. "Obviously, we are very upset about it," said one.
Increasing health concerns over sweet fizzy drinks - last year Diet Coke sales outstripped those of traditional Coke for the first time - were behind the company's decision to branch out further from its traditional market. Targeted mainly at young people, Dasani was said to undergo a complex purification process and then have carefully selected minerals added to it.
The brand hit trouble straight away when it emerged that the source for Dasani was the Thames Water mains supply to Coke's plant in Sidcup, which has passed more than 99.9 per cent of quality checks, making it already one of the purest drinking waters in the world.
While half a liter of Thames tap water costs 0.03p, half a liter of it bottled as Dasani was costing 95p, a mark-up of more than 3,000 times, or a profit of more than 300,000 per cent.
The company was widely compared to Del Boy Trotter in the Only Fools and Horses comedy series, who attempted to sell gullible customers bottled tap water from what he called "the Peckham Spring". Then the Food Standards Agency announced an investigation into whether or not Dasani could be specifically labeled as "pure".
Yesterday the bad publicity peaked when the company announced that its own checks had found bromate in Dasani samples above permitted UK levels of 10 micrograms per liter, and was withdrawing all stocks from sale.
"This is a sensible measure by the company as bromate is a chemical that could cause an increased cancer risk as a result of long-term exposure, although there is no immediate risk to public health," the Food Standards Agency said yesterday. "However, the agency understands that some people may choose not to drink any Dasani they bought before its withdrawal, given the levels of bromate it contains."
A spokeswoman for Coke insisted yesterday that the withdrawal was entirely a precautionary measure.
She said: "In very, very large quantities it can affect your health but we have been advised by the FSA that the levels of bromate that have been detected in Dasani do not pose an immediate health risk.
"We have not been ordered to withdraw the product, it was our decision because it did not meet regulations. Our consumers rightly expect that our products meet only the highest possible standards for quality as well as all UK regulations."
The bromate was produced as a result of adding calcium to the water - a legal requirement - after it had been purified, the spokeswoman said. "To deliver the required calcium, we add back calcium chloride into the product.
"Because of the high level of bromide contained in the calcium chloride, a derivative of bromide, bromate, was formed at a level that exceeded British legal standards. This occurred during the ozonization process we employ in manufacturing."
With annual sales in Britain of £132m, Coke has nearly a third of the carbonated soft drinks market. The company said it was too early to say if it would try to re-enter the market for bottled water, but no jobs would be lost at its Sidcup plant.
© 2004 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd