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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Belgium and France Lift Ban on Coke Products




BRUSSELS, Belgium -- Belgian and French health authorities have ended an almost two-week ban on products of Coca-Cola Co., permitting it to resume production in Belgium and France of sodas that were blamed for 249 cases of vomiting, cramps and other illnesses that shattered European confidence in the world's best-known brand.


Coca-Cola welcomed the relaxation, promised a Coke giveaway, offered to pay the medical costs of anyone who became ill and reiterated the company's contention that its sodas are safe.


But in a continent riven by scares over the safety of supermarket products ranging from genetically modified soybeans to contaminated chicken, it remained doubtful that the heavyweight public relations campaign by the company and its chief executive, M. Douglas Ivester, had stilled Europe's mistrust.


Authorities said they still had not determined the exact cause of the sickness that led to the biggest recall in Coca-Cola's 113-year history.


To end the ban in Belgium, Coca-Cola agreed Wednesday to five conditions relating to cleanliness and safety standards. Ivester said that production would resume immediately and that he expected Coca-Cola products to be back in Belgian stores within two weeks.


The French government on Thursday lifted the ban based on a recommendation by the government agency charged with food security, French Finance Minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn said at a news conference.


"Today, it seems that the product and its packaging are safe so the sales can start up again,'' Strauss-Kahn said.


Coca-Cola's crisis began June 7 when 30 schoolchildren reported illnesses linked to drinking Coke with what Ivester, in his first public appearance since the scare began, called an "off-taste and an off-smell.''


Luc Van den Bossche, Belgium's interior minister who is also in charge of public health, said the symptoms of the illnesses included "stomach ache, dizziness, cramps, vomiting, nausea and in some cases hyperventilation'' but that there was no clear pattern. Some who became ill reported having drunk from bottles of Coke and others from cans of Coke, sugar-free Coke and Fanta.


The Belgian official said the company had highlighted two problems - contaminated carbon dioxide used at a bottling plant in Antwerp and the contamination of the outside of cans transported on wooden pallets. However, he said, there was no "conclusive evidence'' of a link between those problems and the symptoms reported.


Ivester, appearing at a separate news conference in Brussels, surrounded by security staff, translators and executives, reacted to criticism that Coca-Cola was slow in responding to the crisis. Asked if he would resign, he said he would not, and he said he had maintained an initial public silence at the request of the Belgian authorities.


Ivester declined to say how much the European crisis had cost.


He said customers would be invited to return Coca-Cola products to retailers for refunds. "I think one of the first things I'll do is buy everyone in Belgium a Coke,'' he said.