Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Consumer fears after mercury found in Sprite

Chinese police are said to be investigating cases of alleged mercury poisoning after two people became ill after drinking cans of Sprite, a lemon flavoured drink made by American multi-national Coca-Cola. The drinks manufacturer is assisting police to find out how the product came to be contaminated and discover how widespread the problem is.
The two incidents took place three months apart in Beijing and received high-profile coverage in local media. Online polls have shown rising concern among Chinese consumers about the safety of Coca-Cola products. The company has issued a statement ruling out contamination at its Beijing bottling plant, adding that it believed a third party had "maliciously" added the mercury after the canning process.

The first incident occurred on 7th November when a 21 year old Beijing man named as Ma Sai vomited several pieces of mercury after drinking Sprite purchased in a restaurant in Beijing's Xidan shopping district. According to the local Beijing News, the man was diagnosed with mercury poisoning but later released from hospital after Coca-Cola had paid 20,000 RMB (£1,850 / $2,900) in medical bills. Both sides agreed to go to the China Packing Research & Test Center for independent tests on whether the can could have been tampered with after leaving Coca-Cola's plant, the newspaper reported.

The second incident took place on 17th January this year when a 13 year old schoolboy, Wang Haoyong, contracted mercury poisoning after buying a can of Sprite in a supermarket near his school in the far eastern Beijing suburb of Tongzhou. "It felt like jelly when I drank it. One hour later, I started to have headaches and felt dizzy," the boy told China Daily.

After seeing his son showing unusual symptoms, his father, Wang Yijun, said he had tipped out the contents of the can into a transparent bottle and found an object "about the size of a soybean" that looked like mercury and took his son to hospital. The boy is currently still receiving treatment at the People's Liberation Army 307, but is said to be in a stable condition. Police are continuing their investigation into the circumstances of the case which remain unclear.

China is a key growth market for Coca-Cola and advertising for its products are seen everywhere. While the cases are indeed isolated it is indeed worrying that someone has seemingly, and deliberately, contaminated drinks with mercury. The motive can only be speculated. While it may be a prelude to extort money from Coca-Cola, it may also reflect growing anti-American feelings. Online discussions have recently called for boycotts of American products like McDonalds following US arms sales to Taiwan. And Google's recent statements, while applauded by some Chinese, have been met with much hostility. 

In a statement on the alleged poisonings, Coca-Cola said it wished to reassure customers that its stringent production processes could not have allowed mercury to contaminate the drinks. "This was an occasional case and a basic judgment was made that someone maliciously added the mercury into the drink after it entered the market for circulation," a local spokesman told Beijing News. "Currently the police are investigation the case and we would like to positively co-operate with the investigation in the hope of disclosing the truth as soon as possible."

Kenth Kaerhoeg, Coca-Cola's Pacific Group communications director, added that samples taken at the time of production and kept in a product 'library' had been tested and found to be clear of any contamination. "We have been fully co-operating with the police as they review the circumstances under which the products were consumed. As the case is still under review by the police, it would be inappropriate for us to make any further comments," he said.

Kaerhoeg insisted that Coca-Cola's products were "safe for consumption", but it appears that Chinese consumers are become concerned. One rather unscientific online poll on one of China's leading net portals asked "whether you would buy drinks produced by Coca-Cola anymore" following the recent news. Around 53% of the 42,102 respondents said they "would not", compared with 28% who said they "would" and 19% who expressed "no clear opinion".

This is just latest case of food contamination in China. Recently police broke up an illegal bottling factory on Beijing were fake beer was being manufactured in "unsanitary" conditions and passed off as foreign brands such as Budweiser, Corona and Carlsberg. In southern China further recalls were made concerning milk products after melamine contamination was found. While Coca-Cola production may be safe at its manufacturing level, the fact that products came to be contaminated somewhere along the distribution chain raises the question about the safety of any number of products being bought on stalls, supermarkets and in restaurants. This of course may be an isolated case. But sometimes small incidents can snowball and can have serious long term repercussions. The image of Coca-Cola may suffer in the short term, as may do sales. But another food safety scare may also harm China's image yet more [People's Daily / China Daily / Daily Telegraph]. 

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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