Fizzy drinks contamination scare to cost pounds 3m

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MILLIONS of fizzy-drink cans and bottles of sparkling mineral water were swept off supermarket shelves yesterday after high levels of cancer-causing chemicals were found in certain brands.

Well-known brands such as Coca-Cola, Tango and Pepsi were pulled after traces of the carcinogen benzene was found in carbon-dioxide supplies.

Bottles of sparkling Malvern mineral water made by Coca-Cola Schweppes, and Brecon Carreg sparkling water sold both as an individual brand and as an own-label water in supermarkets, were also removed. Other companies were awaiting results of tests on their products.

The scare was sparked last Friday after some samples of water were found to contain up to 20 parts of benzene in 1 million, twice the World Health Organisation guidelines. Experts stressed there was virtually no health risk from the drinks but companies said they were taking the issue seriously in the interests of customer confidence.

Benzene is a man-made chemical known to be highly dangerous, and ubiquitous in the environment. In 1990, Perrier withdrew 160 million bottles after finding traces of benzene at up to 22 parts per billion in 13 bottles.

It is thought the scare will cost the industry between pounds 1m and pounds 3m. The Perrier scare cost that company $150m (pounds 94m). A spokeswoman for the British Soft Drink Association said it was "too early to tell" the cost.

The contamination has been linked to carbon dioxide made by a West Country plant, Terra Nitrogen. A spokesman said yesterday: "We have advised our clients not to transfer any CO2 from Severnside [the plant] to the food and drink industry. We are working alongside our customers and Maff [Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food] who are being kept fully informed."

He added: "There is a negligible risk to the public. We believe this is a quality not a health issue. We have launched a comprehensive inquiry to establish the cause of the problem."

The association said it had been alerted to the contamination problem at the end of last week and had contacted all its members to test their products.

Britvic Soft Drinks withdrew 2.5 million of its 330ml canned drinks as a precautionary measure. A spokeswoman said: "They will be replaced immediately. It is a small amount in terms of overall production."

Coca-Cola Schweppes said "limited quantities" of its products were being withdrawn. Brecon Natural Mineral Water said the batch concerned was bottled between 15 and 27 May. "As soon as we were alerted to the potential problem we ceased production of carbonated mineral water and stopped deliveries of product from all factory and warehouse stocks," said a spokesman.

Sainsbury said it was awaiting the results on tests of its own brand products and would then take action if appropriate. Tesco also said it was testing products "just in case".

A spokeswoman for Maff said: "The amount of benzene you absorb from traffic fumes is about the equivalent of drinking 40 litres of the most contaminated of these drinks."