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Kraft drinks escape benzene lawsuit

By Chris Mercer, 18-Dec-2006

Related topics: Markets

Lawsuits alleging soft drinks made by Kraft Foods may contain the cancer-causing chemical, benzene, have been dismissed after the group said it had reformulated products.

Kraft said it had changed formulas in Crystal Light Sunrise Orange and Kool-Aid Jammers before the four lawsuits against it were filed.

The group now joins a growing list of soft drinks firms that have managed to avoid potentially costly lawsuits over benzene by reformulating their drinks. High-profile producers, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Cadbury Schweppes, still have actions pending, however.

 

Concerns over benzene in soft drinks went public this year when a scientist with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) revealed to BeverageDaily.com the agency had found some drinks containing benzene above the legal limit for drinking water.

 

Benzene is a known carcinogen, although the FDA said levels found in soft drinks posed no health risk in the short-term.

 

Still, both the FDA and the soft drinks industry have known about the suspected source of the benzene for 16 years, an investigation by this website found.

 

Tests in late 1990 and 1991 found benzene could form in drinks via a reaction between two common ingredients, benzoates and citric or ascorbic acid (vitamin C). More than 1,500 drinks containing one of these combinations were launched across Europe, North America and Latin America between 2002 and 2006, records show.

 

Recently released documents show Cadbury secretly pulled and reformulated one of its drinks, Diet Orange Crush, in the US in 1990 because of concern about benzene.

 

Another drinks firm, Perrier, had publicly recalled its water brand earlier the same year after finding lower levels of benzene in drinks than Cadbury.

 

Perrier's problem appeared to be a one-off production fault. Cadbury's was sourced to the ingredients, but no public announcement was ever made and the FDA agreed to let the industry "get the word out and reformulate".

 

FDA and industry handling of the issue has now been brought into question, after the re-emergence of the problem.

 

"Big companies are very powerful. If you're a regulator with a tight budget, it could have been one of those closets with skeletons in that you don't want to open," said a senior ex-FDA enforcement official, on condition of anonymity.

 

For more on benzene in soft drinks, see the BeverageDaily archives.