Again, the Coca Cola Brand Undergoes Integrity Test


As controversy continues to trail a court judgment that Nigeria Bottling Company should put a written warning on Fanta and Sprite bottles, Raheem Akingbolu writes on implication for the brand and consumers

Whether negative or positive, any story associated with Coca Cola is always an interesting one. For decades, the brand has commanded huge followership globally but surprisingly, its soaring profile sometime turns out to be its burden.

Last week, Coca Cola became a major news item, albeit for wrong reason. Two of its products -Sprite and Fanta were indicted in a court of competent jurisdiction. It was not the first time the brand would be enmeshed in crisis but the advent of social media worsens the situation this time around.

 A Lagos High Court sitting at Igbosere faulted National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) for failing Nigerians by allowing the mass consumption of Fanta and Sprite, which were proven to contain cancer-causing chemicals. The products were said to have been banned from the UK.

The court also ordered that NBC, manufacturers of the drink should put a written warning on Fanta and Sprite bottles stating that both soft drinks are poisonous when consumed along with Vitamin C.

In the judgment given by Justice Adedayo Oyebanji, the court awarded a cost of N2 million against NAFDAC. The judgment was the outcome of a 10-year old suit filed by Dr. Emmanuel Fijabi Adebo, and his company, Fijabi Adebo Holdings Limited, against NBC Plc and NAFDAC.

In the amended statement of claims, it was alleged that in March 2007, Fijabi Adebo Holdings Company bought large quantities of Coca-Cola, Fanta Orange, Sprite, Fanta Lemon, Fanta Pineapple and soda water from NBC for export and retail in the United Kingdom. But when the consignment arrived the United Kingdom, health authorities in that country, raised fundamental health issues especially on the excessive amounts of sunset yellow and benzoic acid, which are confirmed to be carcinogenic. The products were said to have been seized and destroyed.

It was a moment when the spin doctors working on the brand in Nigeria would have wished social media dead because the news became a global item within seconds. Since then, it has remained in the space with commentators either supporting the judgment or against it. There are also some analysts who criticise regulators like NAFDAC, Standard Organisation of Nigeria and Consumer Protection Council.

However, supporters of Coca Cola on and off the social media have described the issue as another well-orchestrated script put together by enemies of the brand to frustrate its legendary growth. For instance, a Facebook user, Olabisi Ajayi, called on Nigerian consumers to rely on what they hear from regulators and not a statement from the court. According to her, issues related to quality are a technical issue that can only be solved in the lab, not in court.

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Meanwhile, NBC has issued an official statement, stating that some of the media reports on the issue contain misleading information on the safety of benzoic and ascorbic acids as ingredients in soft drinks, citing a Lagos High Court order.

In the statement, the NBC said there were different approved levels of benzoic acid between Nigeria and UK, but both were within the internationally accepted standards.

“The UK standards limit benzoic acid in soft drinks to a maximum of 150 mg/kg. Both Fanta and Sprite have benzoic levels of 200 mg/kg which is lower than the Nigerian regulatory limit of 250 mg/kg when combined with ascorbic acid and 300 mg/kg without ascorbic acid and also lower than the 600 mg/kg international limit set by CODEX.”

CODEX is the joint intergovernmental body responsible for harmonizing food standards globally.

Among other clarifications, NBC stated that, ‘’In the subject case, which dates back to 2007, the UK authorities confiscated a consignment of our products shipped to that country by the plaintiff because their benzoic acid levels were not within the UK national level, although well within the levels approved by both the national regulators for Nigeria and the international levels set by CODEX, the joint intergovernmental body responsible for harmonizing food standards globally.

While the debate generated by the judgment continued, the Minister of Health, Isaac Adewole, weighed in on the controversy on Thursday and directed the National Agency for Food Drugs Administration and Control, NAFDAC, to collaborate with the Standard Organisation of Nigeria (SON) in addressing Nigerians on the safety of Coca Cola products.

He also called for an urgent meeting with SON on Friday, saying the issue goes beyond the legal aspects of a court verdict. 

“It is about morality; Nigerians can trust us to put their safety first. God bless”, he said.

From anywhere one chooses to look at it, the issue has created panic in the market and it will take intervention of the regulatory bodies as directed by the minister, to calm the nerves. In the meantime, consumers may need not to rely on social media analysts to draw their conclusions. And for handlers of the Coca Cola brand, this is another opportunity to reconnect the two products with their patrons.