Cancer-linked chemical in Coke sparks UK campaign letter to health ministry

By Ben Bouckley

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Coca-cola California

Cancer-linked chemical in Coke sparks UK campaign letter to health ministry
Campaigners will today write to the UK Department of Health (DH) calling for strict limits on levels of 4-MEI, a chemical compound present in caramel colourings used in drinks such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi and linked to cancer in mice.

4-MEI or 4-MI (4-methylimidazole) is an byproduct of ammoniated caramel colouring production, and a spring media storm over its presence in US colas resulted in PepsiCo and Coca-Cola altering colorant manufacturing processes (through suppliers) to bring down levels in California.

The firms then pledged to roll-out the change nationally, with Coke stressing benefits to be gained by streamline manufacturing processes, but the firm insisted there was no public health rationale for the change, and that it was simply keen to avoid a unjust labelling requirement.

Coke said it was responding to California State’s addition of 4-MEI to its controversial ‘Proposition 65’ list regulating known carcinogens. Enforced from January 7, this addition requires foods and beverages containing 4-MEI levels exceeding 29mcg (micrograms) to carry cancer warning labels.

This ‘safe harbor’ level is a California States Non-Significant Risk Level (NSRL)​, representing the daily intake level of a chemical calculated to result in a cancer risk of one excess case of cancer in 100,000 individuals exposed over a lifetime.

'We're working on phase-out timeline' - Coke

But 4-MEI levels found in Coke cans sold in Britain are now 145mg, according to The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and its UK campaign partner The Children’s Food Campaign (CFC).

After we went to press, the CSPI published figures showing 4-MEI levels as high as 267mg in Brazil, while US figures were 144mg in Washington DC and only 4mg in California.

Malcolm Clarke, CFC spokesman, told this morning “The CSPI asked us to get involved in its campaign, and we sent them examples of Coca-Cola sold in Britain for assessment.”

Asked about a timeline for cutting 4-MEI levels in UK Coke, Coca-Cola UK Northwest Europe & Nordics spokeswoman, Sarah Tuke, told this publication: “The company has made the decision to ask its caramel suppliers to modify their manufacturing processes to meet the requirements of California’s Proposition 65. All of our products are safe and in full compliance with all federal and state requirements, including Proposition 65."

She added: "While we believe that there is no public health risk that justifies any such change, we have asked our caramel suppliers to take this step so that our products will not be subjected to the requirement of a scientifically unfounded warning. It is important to note that while we have asked our caramel suppliers to modify their manufacturing processes, those modifications have not changed the taste of Coca-Cola.

"We are starting with California in order to comply with Proposition 65,"​ Tuke said. "We intend to expand the use of the reduced 4-MEI caramel globally as this will allow us to streamline and simplify our supply chain, manufacturing, and distribution systems. Our timeline for this effort is still being developed."

EFSA finds caramel colours safe

Tuke added that the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) stated that, earlier this year: "The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) recently looked at 4-methylimidazole​ and concluded it does not pose a health risk to humans.  Based on available evidence, the presence of 4-methylimidazole in colouring agents is not a food safety concern.”

The British Soft Drinks Association (BSDA) also insists that 4-MEI poses no health risks at levels found in foods and drinks, and says the science surrounding its presence did not support a ban.

In March the American Beverage Association (ABA) hit out at California State for adding 4-MEI to Proposition 65 with no studies showing it caused cancer in humans.

Instead, they had done so on the basis of a mouse study where a person would need to drink 2,900 cans of cola daily for 70 years to reach lowest mouse dose levels, the ABA said.

Only California cares...

BSDA media director Richard Laming also pointed to the March 2011 EFSA opinion on 4-MEI and told “The 4-MI levels found in food and drink products pose no health or safety risks. Outside the State of California, no regulatory agency around the world considers the exposure of the public to 4-MI as present in caramels as an issue.”

Responding to these comments, Clarke said: “Drinks such as Coca-Cola are ones that people drink in quite significant amounts of compared to other products 4-MEI is used in, dark beers, for instance.

“Soft drink consumption is so high, and people are encouraged to drink more, as a global trend, cup sizes, etc., seem to be getting bigger. California wasn’t banning 4-MEI, but wanted to give consumers full information via the health warning label when the chemical exceeds certain limits.

“That led Coca-Cola to reformulate their products in the US. If they can do it in one region – they should be able to do it throughout the world and here in the UK.”

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