Internal soda-company documents provided by a whistleblower show that in late 1990 it was known that the benzene being discovered in some soft drinks was not due to contaminated carbon dioxide, as had been the case with Perrier. Rather, it was due to the breakdown of benzoate in the presence of ascorbic acid.
On Jan. 12, the Food and Drug Administration gave me two memos from 1990-91 about benzene in soft drinks. The representatives of the National Soft Drinks Association told the FDA at the time that they wanted to avoid any publicity on the issue.
In June 1998 there were massive recalls of both Coca-Cola and Pepsi products because of benzene contamination. There were even more massive and controversial recalls of Coca-Cola in Europe because of benzene contamination in June 1999. Coca-Cola was severely criticized for how it handled the 1999 benzene crisis. France and Belgium banned all Coca-Cola products temporarily, because they were dissatisfied with Coke's explanation of how benzene had gotten into the drinks.
Yet even at the time of the 1998 and '99 recalls, the big soda companies did not disclose to consumers the nature of the underlying problem.
The uploaded internal documents show that the industry knew that sometimes there were benzene levels of 25 parts per billion "off the shelf," and 82 parts per billion after exposure to heat and light. In testing in 1990, one well-known diet-soda product had been measured at 1 part per billion "off the shelf" and 41.5 parts per billion after exposure to heat and light. This problem of the tendency of benzene to form would be greatest in the hot climates of many developing countries -- precisely where the companies' soda sales are increasing.
A court in India said last year that Coke and Pepsi had to disclose the presence of a chemical contaminant in their drinks: "The sale of the product should not be allowed without disclosing the composition of the product and the presence, if any, of insecticide, pesticide, and chemicals. It was submitted that in case such a disclosure is made, there would be panic in the market and the business will dwindle. . . . It is not difficult to imagine why the respondent companies want to keep the question of the presence of pesticides in carbonated beverages and soft drinks under wraps. . . . Such secrecy cannot be legitimately allowed, and the veil of secrecy must be lifted for public knowledge and information in the public interest, so that they can make an informed choice."
The FDA has agreed to my request that it conduct a survey of benzene in soft drinks in the United States. The problem here is largely controlled by the industry's use of the chelating agent calcium-disodium EDTA, which was added after the benzene problem was discovered.
The FDA, however, advises me that calcium-disodium EDTA is not approved for use in non-carbonated soft drinks, and that a formal ruling will be required. (The supplier, Dow, reports that calcium-disodium EDTA was originally approved for metal cans, because of the risk of degradation of the metal.) The British Food Standards Agency has confirmed that calcium-disodium EDTA is not approved for beverages at all.
In previous testing, reported in the early '90s in a journal for analytical chemists, the FDA researchers had inexplicably used a protocol that not only did not simulate shelf life, but also carefully kept all the samples refrigerated -- thus failing to address the central issue of the effect of heat and light.
The problem of the effect of heat and light and its role in benzene formation were never disclosed to consumers. Regulators from around the world have told me that they were unaware of it.
The European Union standard for benzene levels is now 1 part per billion. Given that Pepsi's witness in 2001 testified that 3 parts per billion is not uncommon, sodium benzoate should not be used with ascorbic acid (or real juice). The companies should not be selling their drinks without disclosing to consumers this tendency of benzene to form.
Before the recent press broke, the British Food and Drink Federation confirmed that the present 1-part-per-billion water standard would serve as the guide to whether there should be a recall. The American Beverage Association, however, argues that the standard for drinking water should not apply.
Parents should get angry, and insist that companies follow the limit set for drinking water.
Ross E. Getman, a lawyer in Syracuse, N.Y., has represented parents, taxpayers and non-soda-drink manufacturers in seeking to remove soda drinks from schools, and to have school "pouring rights" agreements declared illegal (firstname.lastname@example.org).
© 2006 The Providence Journal