Coca-Cola is defending itself against allegations of producing tainted products in China, where its Minute Maid Pulpy Super Milky drink has been linked to the death of a child and the poisonings of three others.
The product has been pulled from some supermarket shelves while jittery Chinese, unnerved by yet another case of toxic food, spread the news on social media. The topic was one of the top search terms on the popular Sina Weibo microblogging service Friday.
State media reports said pesticide was found in the bottle of the strawberry-flavored milk drink that the 10-year-old boy from the northeastern city of Changchun shared with his mother earlier this week. The boy died hours later, while his mother was recovering in a hospital.
Two other children were also said to have been sickened after consuming another bottle of the drink, but are not in life-threatening danger.
Coca-Cola said it investigated production, logistics and other processes, and ordered third-party tests on samples from the batch in question but did not turn up any problems.
"This case does not involve a product-quality issue and government authorities are carrying out detailed investigations at this time," Coca-Cola Spokewoman Joanna Price said. "Our first priority is always to ensure food safety and the quality of our products."
Minute Maid Pulpy, a variation on the global juice brand Minute Maid with added fresh fruit-pulp, was created in Shanghai for the Chinese market in 2004, and is Coca-Cola's first billion-dollar brand to have launched in an emerging market. The original product was an orange drink with bits of fruit pulp, and the brand was expanded in 2009 with the introduction of the original product line of fruit-flavored dairy drinks, with ads by Coke's Minute Maid agency in China, Bartle Bogle Hegarty, Shanghai.
The launch ads for the Super Milky line featured Eason Chan, a Hong Kong pop singer who continues to star in ads for the Minute Maid Pulpy range of products. In the most recent BBH spot, "Burst of Joy", which broke in September, Mr. Chan drinks from a bottle of Minute Maid Pulpy and sees bursts of orange flavor explode in the room and turn into oranges that tumble across the floor.
China is a large and growing market for the Atlanta-based company. It ranks as one of Coca-Cola's five largest markets, along with the U.S., Mexico, Brazil and Japan. In 2010, case volume grew 6% in China, though per capita consumption is still among the lowest in the world, at 348 oz. servings per capita. By comparison, per capita consumption in the U.S. is 394, while it's 675 in Mexico. Coca-Cola has also committed to investing $7 billion in China between 2009 and 2014.
In China, many consumers consider carbonated sodas a treat to be enjoyed occasionally, while fruit juices and milk drinks are seen to be healthier choices.
Super Milky has been ordered off shelves in Jilin province, where Changchun is located, but media reports said the product was also removed from sale at some stores in other cities. One challenge for Coca-Cola in the days to come is to counter misinformation on social media, where many posts suggested that all Minute Maid products had been banned from sale across China.
"We're trying to work both with the traditional media and social media as much as possible to get information out there in real time," Ms. Price said, adding that Coke was releasing information from its own microblog account.
The company was also preparing to take steps to protect the image of the brand in the longer term.
"We're very focused on the here and now, but we're looking to form teams to look to the future ... to address, if we need to, any concerns that consumers may have in the future about the brand," she said.
China's dismal food-safety record has included scandals such as infant formula tainted with a chemical used in plastics manufacturing and egg yolks colored with industrial dye. Food safety is a common concern among nearly all Chinese consumers.
Coca-Cola was involved in two previous food-safety scares in China related to mercury contamination in Sprite. But it turned out that a child in the first case broke a thermometer and poured the mercury into his drink, while the second instance was a case of poisoning involving a jealous lover.
Outside China, Coke has responded quickly to earlier product-safety scares and recalls. In a horrendous 1999 episode in Europe, the Belgian government banned Coke products for 10 days after more than 240 people in Belgium and France experienced stomach problems after drinking Coke. Although Coke's beverages were later proved blameless, the company jumped in with a massive recall effort that was followed up by offering free products to every home in Belgium and giving away thousands of prizes in raffles. Trust in Coca-Cola was soon restored.