Magazine article Newsweek International

A Little Hard to Swallow

Magazine article Newsweek International

A Little Hard to Swallow

Article excerpt

Coca-Cola officials were out to reassure the public last week when they arrived at a Paris news conference calmly sipping from their trademark red-and-white cans. But that bit of spin quickly backfired. When a group of journalists heckled them, the only response one official could muster was: "I'm thirsty, OK?"

The moment capped a week full of missteps by Coca-Cola. The company was trying to quell a widening--and widely exaggerated-- health scare in Europe over the safety of its soft drinks. It started two weeks ago when several dozen Belgian school children became nauseated after drinking Coke from glass bottles that had been filled at a plant in Antwerp. Two days later another group of Belgians complained of digestive problems after drinking from cans dispensed by vending machines in Dunkerque, France. By last Friday Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Spain had all imposed at least partial bans on Coke products, and the company had transformed a conference room in Brussels into an international crisis center.

How did a few isolated incidents of nausea balloon into a public- relations nightmare? Partly because the public was already on edge about food safety. The revelation earlier this month that a batch of animal feed in Belgium had been contaminated with dioxin convulsed the country. The subsequent panic led several nations to ban Belgian pork and chicken and toppled the government of Belgian Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene.

But Coke's slow public response has made matters worse. Said a French official, "It took 48 hours and the extreme measure of recalling almost everything... to get them to give us some more information." Coke had the following explanation for the two bouts of illness: the first Belgian outbreak was caused by "bad" carbon dioxide, which tainted drinks produced at its plant in Antwerp; in Dunkerque, France, meanwhile, a fungicide on the wooden pallets used for transporting beverages left a foul odor on the cans. …

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