EU Seeks Further Probe of Coca Cola
Jun. 22, 1999
BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) _ As Coca-Cola executives lobbied to get their products back on Europe's store shelves, the European Union pushed for further investigations into what caused dozens of people to become ill after drinking the company's soft drinks.
The call Monday for additional study came as the health scare spilled into Africa and as Coca-Cola and its local distributors launched a European advertising campaign defending the quality of their products as beyond reproach.
Coca-Cola Co.'s chairman, M. Douglas Ivester, returned to Brussels on Monday with the company's marketing chief, Charles Frenette, for meetings with Belgian government officials in an attempt to speed up the resumption of sales of Coke, Sprite and Fanta.
Belgium banned all Coca-Cola products on June 14, and only restored some of its brands to store shelves on Thursday.
Atlanta-based Coca-Cola has blamed defective carbon dioxide, used to put fizz in its drinks, for problems at its Antwerp manufacturing plant in Belgium, while the company said that the outside of cans made in Dunkirk, France, were contaminated with a wood preservative during shipping.
The company said these two unrelated problems have led to similar symptoms of nausea and vomiting. One company-commissioned study suggested the health problems were in the victims' heads.
Two weeks ago, the first children with Coke complaints were hospitalized in Belgium. Since then, some 200 people have been treated for nausea, vomiting and hyperventilation after drinking Coca-Cola products.
``There is still nothing clear about the cause of the contamination,'' said Belgian Health Ministry spokesman Marc Pattyn.
Because of the lingering uncertainty, the EU's executive body, the European Commission, called for additional investigations.
``Belgium and France will have joint inspections on Coca-Cola plants in the next few days,'' said Pietro Petrucci, a spokesman for the 15-nation EU Commission.
In addition to Begium's ban on both cans and bottles of Coke, Sprite and Fanta, France has stopped sales of all Coke cans produced at Dunkirk, although it is allowing sales of cans produced at the country's other Coke plant.
Health officials in both countries have vowed to continue some sort of a ban until a precise explanation for the illnesses is available.
The Netherlands and Switzerland also have imposed selective bans.
The Ivory Coast seized nearly 50,000 cans of Coke imported from Europe as a precautionary measure and pulled them from supermarket shelves, trade officials said Monday.
``We wanted to protect the lives of Ivorian consumers against any contamination,'' said Yao Konan, an official with the Ministry of Internal Trade in the Ivory Coast. There was no evidence, however, that anyone in the Ivory Coast has become ill by drinking imported Coke, which accounts for only 1 percent of the Coca-Cola products consumed in the country.
Separately, Coca-Cola said reports it commissioned from toxicologists found no serious health risks in samples from the Dunkirk and Antwerp plants.
Robert Kroes of Utrecht University in the Netherlands, said that while there were unpleasant odors from the samples, any impurities were well within acceptable limits and much too weak to account for the illnesses.
In a similar analysis, toxicologist D. Lison at Catholic University in Louvain, Belgium, suggested the problem could be ``a mass sociogenic illness,'' or physical discomfort aggravated by an emotional reaction.
Health officials in Belgium were skeptical.
``Thirty children had to be hospitalized. Eight had to spend the night in hospital. Four had to spend two nights in hospital. It makes me doubt any argument about psychosomatic,'' said Pattyn, the Health Ministry spokesman.
Coca-Cola advertisements, meantime, began appearing in France, Italy, Greece and Spain defending the quality of the company's soft drinks.
The ad appearing in major French dailies said that analyses by Coca-Cola and by independent teams show that ``the drink is not in question.''
``Its quality is irreproachable.''
The theme was the same in Italy. ``There is no relation between The Coca-Cola Company's drinks produced in Italy and the incidents that have happened abroad,'' the newspaper ad read.