Third soft drinks firm settles over benzene lawsuit

By Chris Mercer

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Soft drinks Soft drink Us

Another soft drinks firm has reformulated and agreed to pay out
compensation in the US to head off a lawsuit over the potential
presence of cancer chemical benzene in its drinks, as the
controversial issue continues to bubble.

Meridian Beverage Company, producer of several flavoured waters, has agreed to pay a total $1,000 to two parents, and as yet unspecified amount to cover their lawyers' fees, according to the settlement document, seen by​.

Immediately following the announcement, the same lawyers announced a new lawsuit against the Publix soft drinks group, alleging private tests had found one of its Diet Lemon Lime drinks with benzene above the US safety limit for benzene in tap water.

The news shows concern over benzene residues in soft drinks is still causing the soft drinks industry problems, nine months after this publication first revealed the issue.

Exposure to benzene in sufficient quantities increases the risk of cancer, although drinks firms and the US Food and Drug Administration have said there is no health risk from levels found in soft drinks.

Benzene may form in drinks through a reaction between two common ingredients, benzoate preservatives and citric or ascorbic acid (vitamin C) - something both industry leaders and Food and Drug Administration officials have known for nearly 16 years, an investigation by​ found.

The Meridian settlement follows similar deals reached with In Zone Brands, maker of Bellywashers, and TalkingRain recently.

The firm, while still denying any wrongdoing, said it voluntarily removed ascorbic acid from several of its Aquacal flavoured waters in March. It will now also offer refunds to customers who bought one of around 22.5m drinks between February 2005 and March 2006. Proof of purchase must be supplied.

Lawyers in the case welcomed the move.

"The formation of benzene is a chemical reaction that can easily be avoided by simple reformulation. Meridian took immediate action when it was told about the potential risk of benzene formation, and that is the obligation of every responsible beverage maker,"​ said Tim Howard, who has brought actions against Meridian and others.

Several other soft drinks firms, and most notably the 'big three' of Coca-Cola, Cadbury Schweppes and PepsiCo, are still facing court cases over benzene in drinks, following independent testing.

"More will be required of the larger companies,"​ Andrew Rainer, another lawyer involved, told​ recently. PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and Cadbury Schweppes were all part of the soft drinks association when the benzene issue first arose in 1990.

An industry-wide guidance document, published by the International Council of Beverages Associations and the first to be compiled, was drawn up after the benzene issue went public earlier this year.

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, which can exacerbate the reaction between key ingredients. Meridian agreed as part of its settlement deal to test drinks for 14 days at 110°F.

Read​ on Monday 20 September for more on the unanswered questions over benzene in soft drinks, including comments from a senior ex-FDA official.

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