Food Law News - UK - 2006

FSA News Item, 31 March 2006

CONTAMINANTS - Agency publishes survey into levels of benzene in soft drinks in the UK

The Food Standards Agency has today published the results of a survey to investigate levels of benzene in 150 soft drinks on sale in the UK.

Benzene was not detectable in the majority of products sampled. Four products1 contained benzene levels above the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines for drinking water2 and the Agency has asked for these to be removed from sale3.

The Agency undertook this work following reports of high levels of benzene in soft drinks on sale in the US last month. At the time the Agency asked the UK soft drinks industry for data about levels in UK products which, whilst indicating that there was no concern for health, provided limited detail. The Agency consequently has conducted its own work published today4.

Dr Andrew Wadge, Director of Food Safety at the FSA, said: 'We did this survey to get a clearer picture of whether benzene was present in any soft drinks on sale in the UK and at what levels. We found that levels in the vast majority of products tested were low and not a cause for concern. However, we are concerned about the levels in four drinks and have asked their manufacturers to remove the affected batches from sale.

'These results show that it is technologically possible to produce soft drinks without detectable traces of benzene. This is what we want all manufacturers to do. Whilst it is important that industry take action, people should not be alarmed if they have drunk these products. The levels of benzene reported in this survey will only make a negligible impact on people's overall exposure to benzene and so any additional risk to health is therefore likely to be minimal.'

In more than two thirds (107 out of 150) of the samples tested, the levels of benzene were undetectable. A total of 38 samples had levels of benzene between 1 and 10 ppb (parts per billion) below the guideline level set by the WHO for water of 10 ppb.

People who have inhaled very high levels of benzene in the work place have been found to increase their risk of cancer. Benzene has been detected at far lower levels in some soft drinks. People would need to drink more than 20 litres of a drink containing benzene at 10 ppb to equal the amount of benzene you would breathe from city air in a day. The presence of benzene in soft drinks is thought to be a result of interaction between the preservative sodium benzoate and ascorbic acid (vitamin C). Sodium benzoate is added to drinks to prevent the growth of moulds.

Notes to editors

(1) Table of products affected

Low calorie bitter lemon Co-op 1 litre Jun 06 5328 K3A 28 ppb
10 Aug 06 L6012 SSTG 11 ppb
Still sugar free lemon & lime drink Popstar 330 ml 22 Apr 06 L5207 SS 17 ppb
No added sugar pineapple & grapefruit crush Morrisons 2 litre Jul 06 6024 C3 11 ppb
High juice no added sugar blackcurrant squash Hyberry 1 litre Sep 06 L4 5339 12 ppb

(2) There is no legal limit for benzene in soft drinks. The Agency has drawn on the WHO guidelines for safe levels in drinking water as an appropriate comparison on which to ask industry to remove products from sale.

(3) The Co-op has removed affected batches of its low calorie bitter lemon from sale. The Agency has asked the three other companies with levels above WHO guidelines to ask them to withdraw their products from sale.

(4) The survey involved 150 drinks collected from four regions in the UK ( Belfast , London , Manchester and Cambridge ). The samples consisted of squashes, carbonated drinks and ready-to-drink still drinks. The majority of the drinks surveyed were selected as they contained the ingredients sodium benzoate and ascorbic acid (vitamin C).

(5) The units used in the survey are parts per billion. 1 ppb is 1 part per billion i.e. 1/1,000,000,000 which is equivalent to 1 microgram per kilogram (1µg/kg).

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