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UK food watchdog finds benzene in soft drinks

By Chris Mercer , 01-Mar-2006

Britain's food safety watchdog says initial tests on 230 soft drinks show benzene levels above the UK limit for water, as the industry tells BeverageDaily.com how it controls the issue.

Benzene levels in 230 soft drinks sold in the UK were generally below the World Health Organisation's 10 parts per billion (ppb) limit for drinking water, said a Food Standards Agency (FSA) spokesperson to BeverageDaily.com.

Yet, average benzene levels were above the UK's stricter one ppb limit for water, she added. The FSA will now analyse the initial tests more thoroughly and "continue to investigate".

A spokesperson for the British Soft Drinks Association said the UK's water limit should not apply for soft drinks. "There is no cross-over," he said, adding that the levels were still too low to be a health risk for consumers.

The tests, carried out by Britain's soft drinks industry, were done on a range of soft drinks containing both sodium benzoate and ascorbic acid (vitamin C).

The FSA requested the testing two weeks ago after the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) revealed to BeverageDaily.com it had found drinks containing benzene above America's legal limit for drinking water.

The FDA and US soft drinks industry have known for 15 years that sodium benzoate and ascorbic acid could react to form benzene in drinks. Several products were reformulated in 1990 and early 1991. The issue was never announced to the public.

All drinks in the recent UK tests were examined at the end of their shelf-life to monitor benzene formation over time, according to Richard Laming, spokesperson for the British Soft Drinks Association.

"We are fulfilling our obligation to keep levels as low as reasonably achievable," he told BeverageDaily.com.

Benzene is listed as a cancer-causing chemical by health authorities, though the industry has said it is a question of quality, not health, in drinks.

Laming said the possibility for ascorbic acid and sodium benzoate to form benzene was "not a surprise in the soft drinks industry".

That's why we have reduced the level of sodium benzoate [in formulations] and remove it where possible. We have a testing programme to make sure levels are as low as possible."

He said industry testing on drinks included exposing them to heat and light in an attempt to anticipate benzene levels in a product throughout its lifetime.

America's FDA was re-alerted to a problem with benzene in some drinks by independent laboratory tests in New York.

The lab found some soft drinks with benzene levels several times above the World Health Organisation's 10ppb water limit. The FDA water limit is half that.

Kevin Keane, of the American Beverage Association, said some brands may not be aware of the potential for sodium benzoate and ascorbic acid to form benzene.

"15 years ago it was under control, but this is a fast-growing industry. There are a lot of new companies, a lot of new brands and things have changed,"

He assured consumers there was no health risk involved.

News that the FDA has found a problem in some drinks, however, suggests a breakdown in communication.

"We will review the 1990 reformulations to see if there's anything we have learnt since that time," said Mike Redman, a beverage association scientist who also represented the industry in meetings with the FDA on benzene back in 1990/1991.

Other countries were still investigating the issue on Wednesday.

Germany's over-arching consumer safety body, BfR, acknowledged in a study published Tuesday that the deterioration of sodium benzoate in soft drinks could lead to benzene formation at low levels.

It has asked for further data from food safety bodies in the country so it can make a proper assessment.

Back in the US, the Environmental Working Group has urged the FDA to release results of its recent testing, arguing the public has a right to know.

See BeverageDaily.com's breaking stories on benzene in soft drinks over the last two weeks for more information:

Soft drinks industry pledges to tackle benzene in drinks. 27/02/2006

UK, Germany checking soft drinks for benzene. 20/02/2006

Special report: FDA re-opens probe into benzene contamination of soft drinks. 15/02/2006

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