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Coke Soft Drinks Banned in Belgium

June 16, 1999

BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) _ Just as they’re starting to recover from a food contamination scare over meat, butter and eggs, Europeans are being buffeted by fears of another product they thought they could trust _ Coca-Cola.

Following the hospitalization of dozens of Belgians, Coke admitted Tuesday that it had problems at two of its plants _ one involving pesticide on the outside of cans, the other substandard carbonation gas.

While the world’s largest soft drink maker contended that the products are still safe, the scare which prompted Belgium to ban all Coke soft drinks Monday spread to its neighbors Tuesday.

Luxembourg said it was withdrawing all Coca-Cola drinks from its stores.

Coke’s Dutch arm recalled all its products originating from Belgium and ordered its distributors in the Netherlands to stop any imports of Coca-Cola products from Belgian suppliers.

France banned the sale of cans Coca-Cola, Diet Coke, Sprite and Fanta brands, saying the company’s explanations of the contamination haven’t been sufficient.

Coke’s admission follows a dioxin scare that spread across Europe in recent weeks. Most nations including the United States banned sales of chicken, pork, beef, eggs and meat products from Belgium after revelations the cancer-causing chemical had entered the food chain through animal feed.

While Belgium began restocking shelves Friday with foods from farms the government deemed safe, bans on Belgian foods remain in effect in a number of other countries.

Now comes the Coke scare.

Philippe Lenfant, general manager of Coca-Cola Belgium, said separate errors occurred at two Coca-Cola plants, one in Dunkirk, France, just across the Belgian border and the other in the northern Belgian city of Antwerp.

At the Antwerp plant, Lenfant said gas used to carbonate drinks about two weeks ago was ``of bad quality.″

Coca Cola said that only the taste was affected and that all of the products involved have been recalled.

In Dunkirk, a pesticide used to treat some wooden crates in which the cans are placed leaked onto the underside of the cans. People who drank from these cans probably fell ill after inhaling the substance, Lenfant said.

He insisted the pesticide had not leaked into drinks, but had been absorbed by an anticorrosive lacquer painted on the bottom of the cans.

Coca-Cola said ``independent analysis″ had determined the pesticide was safe, but said it was taking steps to eliminate the odor.

The Atlanta, Ga.-based company said both problems were confined products sold in Belgium.

Lenfant refused to say how many cans and bottles were affected.

Despite the publicity nightmare, corporate crisis consultant Alfred Geduldig said it was unlikely Coke will experience any long-lasting effects from the scandal.

``They are going to show themselves to be very consumer oriented,″ he predicted. ``No one manages their global image more than Coke,″ said Geduldig, of the New York-based firm Geduldig and Ferguson Inc.

Coca-Cola’s name recognition in this case worked against them, Geduldig added. If a similar incident happened to a small company that was selling a soft drink, it probably would not get into the papers and the bureaucracy probably wouldn’t ban the product.

``The fact that the Coca-Cola brand is so famous makes it a news story,″ he said. ``On the other hand, that’s balanced out by the fact that Coca-Cola implies purity and quality and customer satisfaction.″

On Monday, Belgium Health Minister Luc Van den Bossche banned all sales of Coke and other Coca-Cola brands such as Fanta, Sprite, Aquarius, Bonaqua or Minute Maid fruit juices.

The move came after a total of almost 50 people were hospitalized suffering from nausea after drinking Coke products. Eight remained in the hospital Tuesday.

On June 10, 31 school children fell ill after drinking Coke, forcing the company to recall 2.5 million bottles.

At least one person hospitalized showed symptoms of hemolysis, an excessive destruction of red blood cells that causes anemia and vomiting.

``We respect the minister’s decision,″ Lenfant said. But he stressed the company had withdrawn the contaminated products and was confident sales could soon return to normal.

Lenfant met with Van den Bossche Tuesday and said he felt he had convinced the minister the damage was contained.

``I am more optimistic tonight than I was this morning,″ Lenfant told reporters.