Coke Defends Product as Dairy Safety Issues Resurface

A ten-year-old boy in north-eastern China died on Tuesday of apparent pesticide poisoning from a tainted bottle of strawberry yoghurt drink, bringing renewed attention to the country’s persistent problems with dairy safety. China Daily published an account of the incident from the boy’s father, Chu Shiwei:

He recalled that his wife, surnamed Liu, returned to the family home in Changchun, capital of Jilin province, at about 8:35 pm and drank less than half a bottle of the strawberry drink before handing it to their son to finish.

“About five minutes later, my wife was on the floor, twitching and foaming at the mouth,” he said on Thursday. “Her hands were like chicken’s feet.”

It was not until the ambulance arrived that the boy also began crying in pain.

Both victims were rushed to the intensive care unit at the No 1 Hospital Affiliated to Jilin University. However, Chu’s son died five hours later.

“He’s now at the funeral parlor. His body and teeth are black,” said the father.

The drinks have been pulled from sale locally, a move attributed to local authorities by China Daily and to manufacturer Coca-Cola by The Wall Street Journal. Coca-Cola insisted, however, that the product itself was not to blame, while The Wall Street Journal noted a similar case in 2009 in which the company was cleared of responsibility for mercury contamination:

Coca-Cola spokeswoman Joanna Price said Friday that authorities in Changchun, the capital of Jilin, had pinpointed two bottles of the strawberry-flavored variety of the drink as the source of the poisoning. She declined to comment on whether the drinks may have been poisoned after bottling.

Ms. Price said Coca-Cola tested its product line and found no other contaminated bottles. Nevertheless, Coca-Cola has pulled all Minute Maid Pulpy Super Milky drinks from shop shelves in Changchun, and the strawberry-flavored variety from the entire province.

“This case does not involve a product-quality issue, and government authorities are carrying out detailed investigations at this time,” a statement from the Atlanta-based company said ….

A young man who fell ill in 2009 after drinking a can of Sprite, a Coca-Cola brand, said he was poisoned by a chemical substance in the product. Xinhua said Chinese authorities who investigated the case found that mercury was added to the Sprite after its purchase, and they exonerated Coke.

Many in China appear willing to take the company at its word on this occasion, according to The Financial Times. Instead, public anger is once again directed at China’s own food safety authorities. From The Diplomat’s David Cohen:

The Chinese public has instead turned its attention to China’s food safety administration, which issued a set of remarkably weak standards for milk in June – including, remarkably, lowering the minimum protein content of milk sold in China from 2.95 per hundred grams to 2.8 – a significant step away from the developed world standard of 3.0. The poisoning in the Sanlu scandal was caused by melamine, an industrial chemical which manufacturers used to disguise low protein contents. The new standards also allow milk to contain as many as 2 million bacteria per milliliter, some 20 times the allowable amount in the United States and EU.

The sheer audacity of lowering China’s most-watched food safety standard has raised suggestions of powerful special interests – an article in The People’s Daily quoted Zeng Shouying, vice director of the Dairy Industry Committee of China Dairy Association claiming that China’s three major dairy companies exploited their advisory role in the drafting committee to remove tougher standards proposed by experts. The Ministry of Health responded yesterday in the pages of the same paper, telling the journalist that “it was right that dairy producers, crucial to the safety of their produce, should be represented in the drafting committee.”

A recent report by The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos illustrated the long shadow of China’s melamine scandals: trust in domestically-purchased products remains so low that mainland tourists return from Macau laden with cans of baby formula.

Health concerns have also arisen in connection with the early withdrawal of a new Coke can in the West. TIME reports that the new design caused confusion between Diet and regular Coke, bringing unexpected calories to dieters and potentially more serious consequences to diabetics.

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