The Court Judgement
Recently a court in Nigeria ruled that high levels of benzoic acid and additives in Coca-Cola’s soft drinks could pose a health risk to consumers when mixed with ascorbic acid, commonly known as vitamin C.
The ruling was the result of a nine-year-long court battle initiated by Nigerian businessman Fijabi Adebo. Mr Adebo’s drinks company attempted to export the drinks to the UK in 2007. However, the beverages were confiscated by UK customs and after being tested by UK health authorities they were deemed unsafe for human consumption and destroyed.
Mr Adebo then sued Nigerian Bottling Company (NBC) – bottler of Coca Cola products in Nigeria, which had sold him the products. Lawyers of NBC argued that the products were not intended for export. but the defence was rejected by the Lagos High Court judge. “We shouldn’t have a product that is considered substandard in Europe.”
“Soft drinks manufactured by Nigeria Bottling Company ought to be fit for human consumption irrespective of colour or creed,” the judge said.
The judge also gave a fine equivalent to $6,350 (£5,115) to the country’s food and drug regulation agency – National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) – for failing to ensure health standards
“It is manifest that NAFDAC has been grossly irresponsible in its regulatory duties to the consumers of Fanta and Sprite manufactured by Nigeria Bottling Company,” the judge said.
“NAFDAC has failed the citizens of this great nation by its certification as satisfactory for human consumption products […] which become poisonous in the presence of ascorbic acid,” he added.
The excuse and deceit
Asked about drinks sold in the UK, Coca-Cola said: “Everywhere in the world, we review and evolve our recipes to meet the local market’s needs and tastes. All of the drinks that are sold in Great Britain are manufactured locally. Our priority is always to provide great tasting, affordable drinks with the same high level of quality regardless of where they are sold.”
“All our products are safe and strictly adhere to regulations in the countries where they are sold while complying with our company’s stringent global safety and quality standards,” a spokesperson for Coca-Cola told the Independent.
NBC said in a statement, “These two ingredients are also used in combination in some of these products within levels which may differ from one country to another as approved by the respective national food and drug regulators and in line with the range prescribed by CODEX,”
“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.” the statement reads.
The Codex Alimentarius (Latin for “Food Code”) is a collection of internationally recognized standards, codes of practice, guidelines, and other recommendations relating to foods, food production, and food safety. Its name is derived from the Codex Alimentarius Austriacus.
Benzene in soft drinks
Benzene in soft drinks is of potential concern due to the carcinogenic nature of the benzene molecule. The benzene forms from decarboxylation of the preservative benzoic acid in the presence of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and metal ions (iron and copper) that act as catalysts, especially under heat and light.
Benzoic acid is often added to drinks as a preservative in the form of its salts sodium benzoate, potassium benzoate, or calcium benzoate. Citric acid is not thought to induce significant benzene production in combination with benzoic acid, but some evidence suggests that in the presence of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and benzoic acid, citric acid may accelerate the production of benzene.
Coca cola is a profit driven company. They are out there for profit and will readily take advantage of any regulatory flaw to maximize profit. Most poor and developing countries are in the tropics and have little or no contribution to global scientific research, therefore have little or no influence on how research results are interpreted and used in global regulations or policies. Like in cases of international trade laws, the developed world and multinationals (mostly owed by the developed world) influence international regulations to their own advantage with the developing world always at the disadvantaged position.
Instead of worrying about a healthy way to preserve their soft drinks in tropical climate, the developed world and multinationals had made certain that the maximum amounts of benzoic acid that international regulations allow them to use is high enough to guarantee a long shelf life for their products and a maximum profit in tropical countries even though it is not healthy. The long-term health or wellbeing of people living in this zone is not the priority of multinationals. Their priority is profit-making and expansion.
The UK customs and UK health authorities after carrying out a test declared that Fanta and Sprite made in Nigeria by NBC are unsafe for human consumption but Nigerian Ministry of health and NAFDAC, the body in charge of food and drink regulation in Nigeria have come out to say it is safe for Nigerians to consumes these drinks. In other words, the Nigerian authority is saying the life of a Nigerian doesn’t matter as much as the life of a European.
Like the Lagos High Court judge said, Nigerians shouldn’t consume a product that is considered substandard in Europe. If Fanta and Sprite made in the UK is fit for human consumption, then Fanta and Sprite made in Nigeria ought to be fit for human consumption too.
The decision made by NBC and NAFDAC that Nigerians should consume a quantity of benzoic acid considered to be unhealthy for human consumption by the British government because of their geographical locations is pathetic and lack common sense.
If food and beverage in the tropical countries requires higher preservative levels unlike in temperate countries, it still has to be healthy for human consumption. They didn’t consider the fact that Nigeria is a country of abundant heat and light which aids the conversion of benzoic acid in the presence of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) to benzene.
The federal and state government have failed in protecting the citizens of Nigeria. They have decided to stand with NBC against the citizens, the court and the truth. Both NBC and NAFDAC are appealing against the ruling of the court. This is a shame! This is a shame!
Update (17/3/2018): The Nigerian House of Representatives has asked the NBC to as a matter of compulsion tell Nigerians Fanta and Sprite are dangerous to health when consumed with Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C) and instructed that this warning must be printed on the labels on the stipulated products.
The house also urged the NAFDAC (that now have a new head) to compel producers/manufacturers of all soft drinks in Nigeria to indicate all chemicals, acids, colorants and preservatives contained in their products on the packs or bottles “no matter how negligible they are.
This is a Victory for Nigerians!