Pepsi and others settle benzene lawsuit

By Ahmed ElAmin

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Benzene Soft drink Food and drug administration

PepsiCo and several other soft drink manufacturers have agreed to a
settlement in a lawsuit brought against the companies alleging
their products contained cancer-causing benzene.

The companies said they have agreed to reformulate - or have already reformulated - the drinks to make sure the ingredients they contain will not form benzene.

The companies also agreed to give consumers a replacement for any products that were made before the reformulation date.

The class action suit was brought in the US and demanded that the beverage makers remove the drinks from store shelves, reformulate their products, and offer refunds to customers.

The settlement involves PepsiCo, Sunny Delight Beverages Co., Rockstar Inc., Polar Beverages Inc. and Shasta Beverages Inc., according to Forbes magazine.

Coca-Cola, which was originally part of the suit, settled in May and offered replacement drinks, and reformulated the affected products.

The suit alleged that PepsiCo's Diet Wild Cherry drink had benzene levels nearly four times the maximum level of five parts per billion set by the Environmental Protection Agency for benzene in drinking water.

The class action suit was originally filed by lawyers Howard Hewell and Howard Rubinstein.

After the benzene contamination scare first broke in sister publication, lawsuits were filed against soft drinks firms in five different US states.

PepsiCo and others reformulated their drinks last fall, after the media attention.

Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) yesterday updated its list of soft drinks and other beverages the regulator tested for benzene.

The FDA has no standard for benzene in beverages other than bottled water, for which FDA has adopted the the EPA's maximum contaminant level of 5 ppb for drinking water, as a quality standard.

Out of 186 beverages sampled, 10 have so far been found to contain benzene levels above the 5 ppb level set for drinking water, the FDA stated.

Nine of the products have since been reformulated and the levels are now from 1 to 1.5 ppb.

The remaining product is no longer manufactured.

Renewed concerns about benzene's presence in soft drinks have grown since a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) scientist revealed to in February that recent tests had again found some soft drinks with benzene above the maximum level considered safe in US tap water.

The FDA has stressed that benzene levels it has found so far did not pose an immediate health risk to consumers, but that some reformulation would be required.

The suspected source of benzene is two common ingredients - sodium benzoate and ascorbic acid, or vitamin C - in the drinks, although potassium benzoate has been shown to cause the same problem.

Elevated temperatures and light can also stimulate benzene formation in the presence of the two ingredients.

The FDA and soft drinks industry have known this for 15 years, as well as that exposing a drink containing these ingredients to heat could significantly raise benzene levels.

An internal FDA memo dated December 1990 says soft drinks firms approached the agency concerned about benzene traces in their drinks.

Industry and FDA testing ensued.

No public announcement was ever made, and an FDA chemist there at the time told

the agency privately agreed for the industry to "reformulate and get the word out".

Both he and the American Beverage Association admitted earlier this year, however, that some companies, and particularly those formed since the problem arose, may have been left outside of the loop.

More than 1,500 soft drinks containing a combination of sodium benzoate and ascorbic acid or citric acid have been launched across Europe, North America and Latin America in the last four years.

Food safety authorities around the world began testing drinks for benzene in light of the FDA's renewed investigation.

Work by independent scientist James Neal-Kababick exposed a problem.

Kababick, who claimed to have devised a better test for benzene, told the FDA's procedure exposed drinks to heat, which could cause more benzene to form in the drink and so skew results in so-called off-the-shelf testing.

The FDA list of tested beverages can be accessed here:

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