How Coke fell victim to food anxieties

Scare: Contamination scandals have made Europeans anxious about the things they eat -- a fact that has cost Coca-Cola $60 million and damage to its reputation.

July 11, 1999|By COX NEWS SERVICE

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- Sometime in mid-January, a farmer in West Flanders noticed that some of his chicken eggs had failed to hatch.

From the ones that did hatch emerged deformed chicks. He called a veterinary inspector, who had the eggs and chicks tested.

To the inspector's shock, the tests revealed dioxin -- a notorious carcinogen -- in concentrations several hundred times greater than accepted levels.

Thus began what some Belgians call "Chicken-Gate," a complex affair that helped bring down a government and ended the career of a veteran prime minister.

It also set off a chain of events that has cost the Coca-Cola Co. $60 million and incalculable damage to its image.

Piles of carcasses

The Belgian food scandal, highlighted by nightly news footage of piles of pink chicken and pig carcasses buried in pits, has reverberated far beyond the borders of this country of 10 million.

Across Europe, fears about food and drink have become a potent force in the '90s, dividing nations, terminating political careers and making every sip and bite an unappetizing source of contemplation.

Enter Coca-Cola with a lapse in quality control sufficient to make some of its bottles and cans smell and taste like rotten eggs.

Coke's misadventure came with a public in near panic and a discredited government grasping for the appearance of competence and honesty.

These virtues seemed sorely missing in the government's handling of the dioxin crisis, which came to light months after the initial discovery, when the news was broken by a television reporter. The outrage rose to full boil by late spring.

Voters' anger

Voters vented their fury at the polls June 13, ending the government of Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene, the respected politician who held together a split coalition for seven years.

Throughout the crisis, government ministers came and went. In late May, with the chaos in full blossom, Luc Van den Bossche, a dour, battle-tested bureaucrat and deputy prime minister, was assigned to fill the vacant posts atop the ministries of environment, social affairs and health.

Two weeks after the chain-smoking former prosecutor was parachuted in to sort out the mess, the Coke file hit his desk.

On June 8, a dozen students at a Catholic school in the prosperous town of Bornem were taken to a local hospital complaining of vomiting, nausea and headaches after drinking small bottles of Coca-Cola. During the day, another 21 kids trickled in. Overnight, six arrived at the hospital. Fifteen of the 39 were admitted.

A Belgian Coca-Cola executive came to the school in the afternoon after getting a call from its headmaster. Samples were gathered and dispatched to labs at Coke's headquarters in Atlanta.

The next day, the company faxed a letter to the school acknowledging that the illnesses might have had something to do with its products.

Another incident

Two days later, eight students at a school in Brugge, a favorite tourist destination, reported getting sick after drinking Coke products. This incident prompted Van den Bossche to pay attention.

A week later, 30 students of about the same age in the town of Lochristi, 20 miles from Bornem, reported similar symptoms after drinking cans of Coke and Coke products from a vending machine.

Images of retching children being rushed to hospitals were featured on the evening news.

Similar reports began to flood the government -- 112 students from five schools reported they were getting sick after drinking Coke products.

In Van den Bossche's office, it was becoming obvious that the Belgian government had a potential new crisis on its hands. "I'm eating dioxin and drinking Coca-Cola," said one bureaucrat as the new crisis joined the old one.

Coke began withdrawing some of its products, but the reports of illnesses persisted. In all, 249 people sought medical attention in Belgium for symptoms they linked to Coke products.

In the first week, government officials complained that Coke was neither sensitive to the government's position nor forthcoming with explanations.

Products banned

On June 14, a clearly exasperated Van den Bossche surprised everyone by banning the sale of all Coca-Cola products until someone could tell him why all these people were getting sick.

Privately, he was telling aides that the soft drink company deserved what it was getting for not being more open and failing to understand the public's sensitivity about food safety.

Van den Bossche also found it irritating and arrogant that Coke would not divulge its secret formula, which raised suspicions that something might have gone awry with the syrup.

Early on, doctors advised him that the Coca-Cola crisis could be explained as a mass psychosomatic reaction -- now the broadly accepted explanation -- but he was unwilling to risk the wrath of Belgian parents by telling them that it was all in their children's heads.

Coke is `a symbol'

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