US group raises red flag over chemical in Coke

Norah Odwesso Public Affairs and Communication Director Coca Cola East and Central Africa. Photo/File
Norah Odwesso Public Affairs and Communication Director Coca Cola East and Central Africa. Photo/File 

An independent consumer advocacy group wants Coca-Cola to reduce the levels of a cancer causing chemical in its flagship brand sold in Kenya and other parts of the world.

The US-based Centre for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) says the levels of 4 methylimidizole (4-MI) in Coca Cola are above acceptable limits in all markets except in the US state of California, where new laws have forced the firm to reduce them.

The chemical is believed to cause cancer. According to CSPI, the Coke sold in Kenya had the second highest level of 4-MI in nine countries sampled. Brazil had the highest while the UK had the lowest.

“Now that we know it’s possible to almost totally eliminate this carcinogen from colas, there’s no excuse for Coca-Cola and other companies not to do so worldwide, and not just in California,” said said CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson in a statement posted on the consumer group’s website.

The Coca Cola Company told Reuters that said it had asked its caramel manufacturers to modify their production process to reduce the amount of 4-MI in caramel.


The Coca Cola office in Nairobi said there were no plans to change the formula, saying its products were safe.

“All of our products are safe and comply with regulations in every country where we operate. Regulators throughout the world have approved the use of caramel in our products,” said Norah Odwesso, the Public Affairs and Communications Director for Coca-Cola Central East and West Africa Business Unit.

She said the company was not changing its formula and, therefore, would not affect the colour, taste and quality of its drinks.
The firm does not agree with the State of California’s decision to require a warning label on some food products containing trace levels of 4-MI.

“Science does not support California’s position. We will continue to rely on sound, evidence-based science to ensure that our products are safe,” said Ms Odwesso.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is considering a petition by the watchdog group to ban the process that creates the heightened 4-MI levels, but said that there is no reason to believe there is any immediate or short-term danger to consumers.

Earlier this year, an FDA spokesman said a person would have to drink “well over a thousand cans of soda a day to reach the doses administered in the studies that have linked 4-MI to cancer in rodents.”

But CSPI says Coca Cola began using a less-contaminated colouring ingredient earlier this year in California after the state required a cancer-warning notice on soft drinks with excessive levels of the chemical.

California requires a cancer-warning label if a food or drink will lead to consumers taking in more than 30 micrograms or more of 4 methylimidizole (4-MI) per day.

CSPI now says that recent tests show that 35 millilitres of the popular soft drink now contains only 4 micrograms of the chemical 4-MI in California while the same in Kenya contains 177 micrograms.

The level of the chemical in a sample was 267 micrograms in Brazil, 160 micrograms in Canada, 56 in China and 72 in Japan.

A similar sample contained 147 micrograms in Mexico, 155 in the United Arab Emirates and 144 in Washington DC.

“Fortunately, people in China, Japan, Kenya, and some other countries drink much less soda than we Americans do, so their exposure to this dangerous chemical is proportionately lower,” said Mr Jacobson.

The Coca-Cola brand is a market leader in East Africa but it has other competitors such as Pepsi and Dr Pepper.

In March, both Coca-Cola and rival PepsiCo Inc said they had asked suppliers of the caramel colouring to alter their manufacturing process to meet the requirements of a California ballot initiative aiming to limit people’s exposure to toxic chemicals.

Coca-Cola said that it would start in California and expand use of the reduced 4-MI caramel colouring over time. It did not specify a timetable.

Consumption of soft drinks in Kenya has risen steadily in the past six years.

Kenyan manufacturers produced 371 million litres last year up from 279 million litres in 2006 according to data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics.