As we all know, both Coca-Cola and Pepsi are caramel-coloured fizzy drinks. What you may not know is that this caramel colouring is a result a chemical known as 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI). In California, Proposition 65, the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, was enacted as a ballot initiative in November 1986. The Proposition was intended by its authors to protect California citizens and the State's drinking water sources from chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm, and to inform citizens about exposures to such chemicals. Proposition 65 requires the Governor to publish, at least annually, a list of chemicals known to the State to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity. On 7 January 2011, the Governor added 4-MEI to its list of chemicals known to cause cancer or other reproductive harm.
In December 2011, a California court ruled that the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment within the California Environmental Protection Agency (OEHHA) properly added the chemical 4-MEI to the list. The warning obligation became effective on 7 January 2012. As a result, anything higher than the State set benchmark of 29-micrograms for 4-MEI in products must carry a cancer warning label.
According to testing undertaken by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a sample of cans of Coca-Cola contained 113-146 micrograms of 4-MEI and cans of Pepsi contained between 145-153 micrograms of 4-MEI. In a Press Release of 5 March 2012, Michael Jacobson, CSPI executive director stated:
'When most people see "caramel coloring" on food labels, they likely interpret that quite literally and assume the ingredient is similar to what you might get by gently melting sugar in a saucepan. The reality is quite different. Colorings made with the ammonia or ammonia-sulfite process contain carcinogens and don't belong in the food supply'.The American Beverage Association was quick in its condemnation of the CSPI statement. On the same day, 5 March 2012, it issued a Press Release which stated:
'This is nothing more than CSPI scare tactics, and their claims are outrageous. The science simply does not show that 4-MEI in foods or beverages is a threat to human health. In fact, findings of regulatory agencies worldwide, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, European Food Safety Authority and Health Canada, consider caramel coloring safe for use in foods and beverages. CSPI fraudulently claims to be operating in the interest of the public's health when it is clear its only motivation is to scare the American people'.And on 9 March it issued another Press Release:
'While some media outlets have reported that our member companies are ‘changing their recipes,' this is not the case. Our member companies will still use caramel coloring in certain products, as always. The companies that make caramel coloring for our members' soft drinks are now producing it to meet California's new standard, and it will be used in products nationwide. Consumers will notice no difference in our products and have no reason at all for any health concerns, as supported by FDA and regulatory agencies around the world. In fact, just this week FDA downplayed any health risks, noting that a consumer "would have to drink more than a thousand cans of soda in a day to match the doses administered in studies that showed links to cancer in rodents"'.The Food and Drug Administration statement referred to has been reported in many outlets as being made by spokesman Douglas Karas. See here for instance.
Both Coca-Cola and Pepsi have indicated that the new recipes for their drinks will be rolled out in not only California, but the rest of the US. There were no plans at this stage to change the manufacturing in Europe.
The IPKat gets the feeling that there's the prospect of a branding disaster ahead. If the formulation is so dangerous that it has to be changed, shouldn't it be changed in Europe too? Or is 4-methylimidazole a cancer risk only when consumed in the United States? At least one member of the Kat team does not propose to touch the stuff again till he hears that the formula is changed outside the United States too.
Merpel isn't sure whether fizzy drinks taste better in glass bottles, plastic bottles or aluminium cans -- but she thinks she'll go for glass. She has often heard dreadful tales of things being dissolved in fizzy drinks and she has no wish to drink plastic or aluminium ...