A lawsuit has recently come to light in Nigeria over the health impact of two ingredients in Coca Cola products Fanta and Sprite, leading for a call to have warnings on the bottles and a boycott from the Nigerian people. The situation has brought the reality of how corporate negligence and government regulations affect public health, and how consumers can’t rely on organizations to protect their health.
Nigerian Court Rules Coca-Cola Products Potentially Poisonous
Back in 2007, Fijabi Adebo Holdings Limited, an export company run by Dr. Emmanuel Fijabi Adebo in Lagos, Nigeria attempted to export Coco-Cola products Fanta and Sprite to the United Kingdom. Upon reaching the UK, authorities seized the shipment and destroyed it soon after, claiming the drinks had excessively high levels of sunset yellow and benzoic acid. When combined with vitamin C, benzoic acid can form benzene, a carcinogenic substance. (1)
The problem? The upper limit allowed in the UK for benzoic acid is 150mg/kg of soda, and the drinks that came from Nigeria contained 200mg/kg, where the upper limit is set at 250mg/kg. This has caused heavy backlash from Nigerian citizens, who question whether or not the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration Control (NAFDAC) and Coca-Cola has the best interests of the Nigerian people at the forefront of policy making and product development. (1)
Sade Morgan, legal and public affairs and communications director of the Nigerian Bottling Company (NBC) tried to explain the discrepancy in acceptable levels of the additives:
“The permissible ingredient levels set by countries for their food and beverage products are influenced by a number of factors such as climate, an example being the UK, a temperate region, requiring lower preservative levels unlike tropical countries.” (1)
Justice Adedayo Oyebanji ordered that the NBC put written statements on Fanta, Sprite, and Coke bottles warning the Nigerian public against consuming these drinks with vitamin C. He also awarded 2 million naira ($6, 350) to Dr. Adebo for against the NAFDAC for failing to ensure the health standards of the product. (1)
What is Benzoic Acid?
Benzoic acid is found naturally in foods such as berries and milk products and also as a preservative in processed foods like candy, gum, baked goods, ice cream, jams, pickles, and of course sodas, as well as in cosmetics and personal care products. While the low levels found in food are not toxic, exposure to high levels or concentrations can be poisonous to humans. It is impossible for humans to consume toxic levels of benzoic acid via food alone. (1, 2)
What is Benzene?
Benzene is a carcinogenic substance released during the burning of coal, oil, and from car and truck emissions. When foods that contain both vitamin C and benzoic acid are either stored for long periods of time or exposed to heat or light, small amounts of benzene can form. (2)
In 2005, soft drinks in America were found to have benzene levels above 5 parts per billion. Manufacturers were forced to reformulate their products which now contain below 1.5ppb, falling far below the maximum allowed amount in water which is 5ppb. (2)
The Discrepancy Issue
The NBC, NAFDAC, and the Nigerian Government are now facing severe backlash from the Nigerian population as to why something that is considered unfit for consumption by the British is deemed fine for their people. (1)
While lawyers for the NBC continue to argue that the products were not intended to be exports, Justice Oyebanji rejected their defense, stating:
“Soft drinks manufactured by Nigeria Bottling Company ought to be fit for human consumption irrespective of color or creed,” (1)
Representatives from Coca-Cola claim that their product is safe, however the Nigerian people are pushing for a review of standards and regulations. (1)
“The Ministry of Health communique could not be more clear that there is no issue with the safety of Fanta and Sprite,” says Hamish Banks, Coca-Cola VP for Public Affairs and Communications, Eurasia and Africa. “The levels of all ingredients in these products, including benzoates and ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), are well within the conservative guidelines of the Codex Alimentarius and the Nigeria Industrial Standards.” (1)
What this means for us…
The controversy sheds light on the issue of consumers blindly believing that our governments and health and safety agencies wouldn’t allow something on the shelf knowing that it can cause serious health problems. The reality is, it is crucial for consumers to educate themselves, read labels, and make decisions based on what they know to be true about food and health and not necessarily because a company, who’s primary goal is to sell product, tells them that it’s “healthy” or “safe”.
The moral of the story: Consumers must remain skeptical and continue to hold our governments and agencies accountable for what they allow in our products, and force them to keep our best interests, not their pocket books, in mind.