Manufacturers in Ireland have recalled two diet drinks from the market, after testing by the country's food regulator found high levels of the cancer-causing chemical in their products.
C&C (Ireland) Ltd.'s Club Diet Lemon and Rose’s Diabetic Squash Concentrate were voluntary withdrawn from the market after the testing. In response to the survey and public concerns about the presence of benzene in soft drinks, Ireland's beverage association has also issued processing guidelines to help manufacturers reduce the formation of the chemical in their products.
The results of the tests were published yesterday by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI), part of regulatory moves worldwide to discover how widespread a problem the chemical poses to human health. The testing has led to product recalls and legal suits in the US against major manufacturers, including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Kraft and Cadbury Schweppes.
Meanwhile EU member states have agreed on a general approach for the bloc under which a maximum limit would be set for benzene for the first time. The majority of member states have favoured setting the action limit at 10 ppb, the FSAI reported.
The regulatory surveys, including one completed in the UK, were sparked off in February this year after a BeverageDaily.com investigation confirmed that both the US food regulator and the American soft drinks association have known about this problem for 15 years, but had keep it under wraps in the hope that industry would solve the problem.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FSA) first revealed to BeverageDaily.com, a sister publication to FoodProductionDaily.com, that it had found some drinks containing benzene above the legal limit for water in the US.
Benzene is a known human carcinogen and can form in drinks during their shelf-life when vitamin C in the form of ascorbic acid combines with either sodium benzoate or potassium benzoate, which are common preservatives used to prevent bacteria growth in drinks. Its formation is also dependent on on the soft drink's composition and storage conditions.
There is no legislative limit for benzene in soft drinks, but most EU member states and other countries opt for the World Health Organization's (WHO) limit for drinking water of 10 parts per billion (ppb).
The FSAI tested 76 samples of soft drinks, squashes and flavoured waters available for sale on the Irish market. No traces of benzene were detected in 69 of the 76 samples. Seven samples contained benzene at or above 1ppb, the level when testing can detect its presence.
Club Diet Lemon and Rose’s Diabetic Squash Concentrate were found with levels over 10ppb, the limit set for water. One sample of the C&C diet club lemon contained benzene at 91 ppb. Another sample of Rose's diabetic orange concentrate squash contained benzene at a level of 33 ppb.
C&C (Ireland) previously recalled its Diet Club Lemon from sale in Northern Ireland in April this year after the UK regulator also found the product to be contaminated with high levels of benzene.
The FSAI noted that both products were purchased and analysed at a time past their best before date. The 33 ppb detected in the Roses's diabetic orange squash was on the concentrated product as purchased and did not take into account the dilution factor of one in five as indicated by the manufacturer on the label.
Iona Pratt, the FSAI's chief specialist of toxicology, said the levels of benzene found would not have presented a risk to the health of consumers who may have consumed these products.
"However, two products were found to be over the guideline levels for benzene, and we urge the beverage industry to be vigilant and to apply best practice guidelines on avoiding the formation of benzene in soft drinks," she stated in a press release.
The FSAI said it will continue to monitor benzene levels in soft drinks but considers that the survey found the presence of the chemical in soft drinks are generally very low, and hence present a "very low risk" to health.
The FSAI maintains that the industry should keep the levels of benzene at below 10 ppb. Beverages with higher levels should not be placed on the market, the regulator stated.
The EU's soft drinks industry, represented by the Union of European Beverages Associations (UNESDA), is currently working with regulatory authorities to reduce and where possible to completely eliminate the formation of benzene, according to the FSAI.
The industry has also produced a guidance document on how to mitigate the formation of benzene in soft drinks. The document was presented at the EC Standing Committee on Food Chain and Animal Health, Toxicological Safety held in Brussels at the end of March, 2006.
EU member states have agreed on a general approach for the bloc under which a limit for control and enforcement purposes would be set for benzene. The majority of member states favoured setting the action limit at 10 ppb, the FSAI reported.
A number of surveys have been carried out by food safety agencies and industry across the EU. These include a survey by UK industry on benzene in 230 soft drinks. Since then a further testing of 150 products has been carried out by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in the UK.
The results showed that benzene was not detectable or between 1 and 10 ppb in 146 out of 150 products. Four products which exceeded 10 ppb and these were withdrawn from the market. Testing is also ongoing in other EU member states.
The testing worldwide was sparked off after he US FDA in mid-February reported the results of tests showing that some soft drinks were contaminated with benzene at levels above the 10ppb recommendation.
The FDA report led to widespread media attention, because exposure of humans to benzene has been associated with leukaemia and other blood disorders.
The problem had originally been identified in the early 1990s, when it was demonstrated in laboratory trials that benzene could be produced in soft drinks containing sodium benzoate (E211) and ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) (E300) through interaction of these two permitted food additives.
A maximum amount of 150 mg/L benzoates may be added to non-alcoholic flavoured beverages, except milk based beverages. No maximum limits for ascorbic acid are laid down in legislation.
However, in accordance with good manufacturing practice, the amount of ascorbic acid used should be as low as possible to achieve the desired technological effect. Under the law the presence of these two additives in food products must be declared in the ingredients list on the packaging or label.
The formation of benzene in soft drinks is often exacerbated when the beverages are stored for extended periods at elevated temperatures, according to the report by the FSAI. Light can also promote benzene formation. Evidence indicates that sweeteners, such as sugar, high fructose corn or starch syrup, can delay the reaction as the phenomenon seems most noticeable in diet beverages.
There is also some evidence to suggest that ethylene diamine tetraacetic acid (EDTA), which is used as a sequestrant, may mitigate the reaction by complexing metal ions that may act as catalysts, the FSAI reported.
EDTA is an approved additive in the EU but it is only permitted in a small number of products. So far it is not approved for use in soft drinks.
In other related news, the food safety authority in Australia and New Zealand found that of the 68 soft drink samples tested, 38 contained trace levels of benzene. The levels detected ranged from 1 to 40 ppb. The Food Standards Agency of Australia and New Zealand said ten per cent of flavoured beverages had benzene traces at "undesirable levels" that exceeded the WHO guidelines.
The Australian Beverages Council has said the association had "advised manufacturers of how to minimise the incidence of benzene".
Test results revealed last week by the Canada's health regulator found that in more than 80 per cent of the 118 products tested, benzene was either not detected or found at levels below the lowest concentration that can be reliably measured. Four drinks were found that had levels above the Canadian guideline of five micrograms per litre for benzene in drinking water.
Benzene is a solvent that was widely used in the past and is still used in a wide variety of industries, including as an additive in unleaded petrol. It is found in air, particularly in urban areas, as a result of emissions from motor vehicle exhaust , service stations and industrial emissions. The UK Department of Health estimates that people in an urban area may be exposed to about 400 ppb of benzene per day just by breathing traffic fumes.
This results in an exposure level which is equivalent to drinking about 40 litres of water containing approximately 10 ppb benzene per litre, according to calculations by the Irish food safety authority.