Benzene in Your Fanta, Anyone?

Two days ago the House passed a bill that would prevent states from informing their citizens of food safety risks.

It was opposed by the Attorneys General of 39 states. On final passage, the bill passed 238-139, with 13 Republicans standing up for food safety, and 71 Democrats voting with the industry. California Congressman Henry Waxman, in opposing the bill, warned that the food industry "wants states to come hat in hand to the Food and Drug Administration ... and that agency will decide whether the state laws can continue in effect. They will have higher power than the state legislatures and governors."

A major target of industry was California's Prop 65, a statute passed by the voters in 1988 (which I co-authored), which requires food or beverages which contain chemicals known to cause cancer or birth defects to be so labeled. Prop 65 has been very successful at persuading manufacturers to keep such chemicals out of food -- they want to avoid the labels. Bottled water companies from Crystal Geyser to Calistoga removed arsenic, a human carcinogen, from their products. Mexican candy makers are currently negotiating with California to dramatically reduce in the levels of lead in their candy.

But enormous sums of money flowed into the lobbying campaign to have the federal government preempt Prop 65 and all other state food safety labeling laws. Both Coke and Pepsi have been major proponents of preempting Prop 65 and stripping the states of food safety authority. There's a reason. On March 4, Knight-Ridder revealed that the FDA has found that soft drinks can have levels of benzene three to four times as high as the allowable levels in drinking water -- up to 10-20 parts per billion. (For comparison, the recall by Perrier a decade ago was over benzene levels of about 12 parts per billion.)

The FDA won't say exactly which products contain the benzene, and it hasn't ordered a recall. The Agency confirms that the problem results from a combination of ascorbic acid and either sodium benzoate or potassium benzoate found in many brands. The Environmental Working Group has posted a list of potentially suspect drinks. Apparently both Coke and Pepsi recalled products in 1998 and 1999 due to benzene contamination.

The industry clearly is trying to quash public concern about benzene contamination. Since Prop 65 would require labels on contaminated drinks, one tactic is to preempt it. Another is to reassure consumers that even though the levels exceed allowable drinking water standards, it's not a problem, because we drink "so little" of soft drinks compared to water. The American Council on Safety and Health, an industry front group, is already putting out soothing propaganda along this line.

The next step in the campaign to strip states of their food-safety labeling authority is the Senate. Maybe if Senators are aware that the industry has something very, very ugly it is hiding, they will show more backbone than the House did and stand up for the public. Now is the time to tell them.