While the UK food authorities have issued recalls on four products that had benzene levels at up to 28 times the country's limit for drinking water, Australian food officials have not taken similar action.
Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) said this week that although more than half of the 68 products it tested during the spring contained trace levels of benzene, these did not pose a risk to public health.
"In the long term it is not a good thing to have in your food but in our view, scientifically, these amounts are not a health risk," said a spokeswoman from the agency.
There is no specific limit for benzene in soft drinks but in a few cases, levels of the chemical were up to four times the WHO's benchmark level of 10 parts per billion in drinking water. Drinking water is, of course, consumed in greater quantities than flavoured beverages.
FSANZ has however asked the food industry to increase its monitoring of benzene levels and look at ways of formulating products that will avoid formation of the chemical. Manufacturers of flavoured beverages where benzene was found at levels of 1 ppb and above have been referred to a guidance document produced by the International Council of Beverages Associations (ICBA) to help them minimise benzene formation.
The agency's handling of this issue, being examined by food safety bodies around the world, is in contrast to the approach taken by the UK Food Standards Agency, and US lawyers, who are currently bringing class action lawsuits against some of the world's biggest beverage companies including PepsiCo, Cadbury Schweppes and Coca-Cola.
However FSANZ said that the trace amounts found in its survey make a very small impact on a consumer's overall benzene exposure.
"Exposure to benzene in drinks is a minor contribution to total exposure from driving a car or inhaling air in a built-up city," it said in a statement.
Tony Gentile, director of the Australian Beverages Council (ABC), added that benzene is found naturally in numerous foods, as demonstrated in a study published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry in 2003.
Ground beef samples contained, on average, 40ppb benzene levels, while raw bananas contained more than 130ppb.
Benzene also forms in drinks that contain both ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and the food preservative sodium benzoate. Erythorbic acid and citric acid are also thought to play a similar role to ascorbic acid, and the reaction is enhanced if drinks are exposed to higher temperatures or light.
"It is very difficult to guarantee that there will never be a trace of benzene in these kind of products [mainly citrus beverages]," Gentile told AP-Foodtechnology.com.
However he added that although companies were made aware of the possibility of benzene forming some 15 years ago, "knowledge is sometimes lost as people change formulations".
"Our job now is to ensure that we are doing everything possible to minimize the levels present," he said.
The ABC is directing its members - about 90 per cent of all beverage firms - to a document produced by the International Council of Beverages Associations (ICBA) on how to reduce benzene formation in beverages. (http://www.australianbeverages.org/lib/pdf/ICBABenzeneGuidanceDocumentFinal.pdf )
The ABC has agreed to survey each year member companies' compliance to the document's key recommendations, which will involved the firms putting new systems in place to review formulations as well as tests under high temperatures and long storage times.
It will start in the fourth quarter of 2006, and provide a summary of the findings to the relevant government regulatory body.