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Belgium Keeps Ban on Coke, Sprite

June 17, 1999

BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) - Belgian’s government extended its ban on Coke but agreed Thursday to allow sales of some of the company’s other beverages to resume for the first time since Monday, when they were ordered from shelves after dozens of people became ill after drinking Coca-Cola products.

And while France partially relaxed its ban on sales of Coca-Cola, Switzerland joined a move by other nations to block sales of Coca-Cola drinks produced in Belgium.

Coca-Cola Co., the world’s biggest soft-drink company, had been hoping for a lifting of the ban to help restore European consumer confidence in brands damaged by the health scare.

With Coke’s problems coming on top of a Belgian scandal involving dioxin-infected meat, eggs and dairy products, France’s president said Thursday he will propose creating an international council to monitor food safety.

In Belgium, the Heath Ministry said Thursday that it was allowing the resumption of sales of Coca-Cola’s Nestea, Aquarius, Bonaqua, Kinley, Lift and Minute Maid brands. But the ban was extended on Coke, Fanta and Sprite pending further investigation into what caused the illnesses.

``It is not possible today to explain in a calming and satisfactory way the appearance of these symptoms of illness,″ said the statement from Health Minister Luc Van den Bossche. ``Coca-Cola must withdraw all these products from the market and destroy them.″

There was better news for Coke from Paris, where the government announced it was relaxing a ban on Coca-Cola products in cans to allow sales to resume from one of two French Coke plants.

Coca-Cola Belgium had no immediate reaction to the decision. Calls seeking comment from Coke’s headquarters in Atlanta were not immediately returned.

M. Douglas Ivester, the chairman of Coca-Cola, expressed deep regrets to European customers on Wednesday and promised the company ``will not rest″ until it ensures all of its products meet the highest quality standards.

Thursday’s action didn’t hurt Coca-Cola on Wall Street, where its shares were up 81 1/4 cents at $64.68 3/4 in late trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

Earlier this week, Coke said it traced the origin of the problems in Belgium to a plant at the French port of Dunkirk, just across the border from Belgium, and a factory in the Belgian city of Antwerp.

In France, Consumer Affairs Secretary Marylise Lebranchu said the government was authorizing the sale of canned Coke produced in the southern city of Marseilles, but maintaining a ban on cans from northern Dunkirk. Tests on drinks from Dunkirk should be completed by the weekend, the minister said.

She also said some 80 French people, mostly from northern areas, had complained feeling unwell after drinking Coke, but stressed ``the relation between cause and effect had not been proved.″

The Belgian government imposed the ban Monday after dozens of youngsters were hospitalized complaining of stomach pains and nausea after drinking Coca-Cola products. Belgian news media said Thursday some 200 people had been affected.

The health scare rapidly spread to other nations, with Luxembourg imposing a similar ban, France banning Coke in cans, and the Netherlands, Spain and Germany withdrawing Coke products coming from Belgium. Switzerland joined the list Thursday telling Coke to withdraw any drinks imported from Belgium. Finland’s Silja Line ferri said they were pulling French and Dutch canned Coke from their ships in the Baltic Sea.

Coke insists there was no toxic contamination of its drinks, but said substandard gas used to put fizz into the drinks at the Antwerp plant produced an off taste, while fungicide used on crates in Dunkirk was absorbed by the underside of cans giving off an ``offensive odor.″

Coca-Cola Belgium said it would reimburse medical costs of anyone who produced a doctors’ certificate showing drinking the company’s products had made them ill.

The Coke scare hit just as European consumers were still shaken by a scandal over Belgian food contaminated by cancer-causing dioxins. That led to bans on poultry, eggs, pork, beef and diary products from Belgium creating Europe’s worst food panic since the 1996 ``mad cow″ crisis.

French President Jacques Chirac on Thursday proposed the creation of a ``global higher scientific council for food safety.″

``Our people are increasingly concerned, worried,″ Chirac said at a joint news conference in Paris with President Clinton.

Chirac said he would bring up the issue at a meeting that begins Friday in Germany of the leaders of the world’s leading industrial countries and Russia.

``My wish is to see ... whether it might be possible to find a solution able to better guarantee the health of Europeans, of all the inhabitants of the world,″ he said.

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