Soft drinks industry to hold benzene summit

By Chris Mercer

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Soft drinks Benzene in soft drinks

Soft drinks industry officials will meet this September to discuss
progress on cutting benzene residues out of their drinks, six
months after revealed there was still a problem.

European soft drinks association UNESDA will use September's general meeting, set to include industry representatives from 27 European countries, to discuss how a new industry guidance document on limiting benzene formation in drinks is being implemented.

Concerns over benzene residues in soft drinks has spread around the world since a scientist for the US Food and Drug Administration told​ the agency had found more benzene in some soft drinks than is allowed in drinking water.

Exposure to benzene in sufficient quantities increases the risk of cancer. In Europe, four soft drinks were recalled in the UK earlier this year after government tests there also found a problem.

Alain Beaumont, secretary general of UNESDA, told​ the new guidance document on avoiding benzene in drinks had been widely distributed and "very well received by members and authorities"​.

Benzene may form in drinks through a reaction between two common ingredients, benzoate preservatives and citric or ascorbic acid (vitamin C). Exposing drinks to heat increases the reaction.

Both the FDA and soft drinks industry have known about this problem for 15 years, an investigation by this website found. No public announcement was made until 2006, and the FDA agreed that the industry itself would "get the word out and reformulate"​.

Critics have questioned why no cross-industry guidance document on benzene was made when the problem first appeared. "It is perplexing,"​ said Andrew Rainer, a lawyer suing several soft drinks firms, including Coca-Cola, over benzene in the US.

Some soft drinks firms may have been out of the loop on benzene, said Kevin Keane, spokesperson for the American Beverages Association, in February. "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."

"Companies have had their own procedures in place,"​ said Beaumont, adding that the issue had been under control for several years.

"Our colleagues in the US told us about the [new] FDA investigation and we started to collate all the various procedures of different companies in order to make an industry document."

The guidelines, published by the International Council of Beverages Associations in April, draw largely on what the industry and FDA discovered in 1990-91.

Several points, including the potential protective power of additive EDTA and the higher risk associated with diet and sugar-free drinks, were stated in an internal FDA memo dated January 1991.

The new guide also tells companies to test drinks for benzene after heat exposure, and asks them to consider whether they could remove one or more of the troublesome ingredients.

Both food safety authorities and the soft drinks industry have re-iterated that there was no health risk to consumers in the benzene levels found in drinks.

For this reason, Beaumont rejected calls to put a limit on benzene residues in soft drinks. No limit has ever been set by food safety authorities.

"We don't provide for a limit. We try for complete avoidance of benzene, which in some cases might not be possible. But, there is no health concern so why should we put a limit?"​ Beaumont said.

He added that the World Health Organisation's 10 parts per billion (ppb) limit in drinking water tended be used as a benchmark by soft drinks makers. The US water limit is five ppb, and the UK's is just one ppb.

Several lawsuits have been filed against soft drinks firms in the US after independent lab tests there found benzene in drinks samples above the US five ppb water limit.

Two firms, In Zone Brands and TalkingRain, settled last week, agreeing to refunds and formula changes. But, Coca-Cola was hit with fresh charges after tests found one of its new Vault Zero drinks with 13ppb benzene.

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