In Europe's second food-related scare in a week, Coca-Cola drinks were pulled today from store shelves in Luxembourg and the Netherlands, and recalls began in France, following an earlier ban in Belgium.
The recalls were in response to the sudden illness of 31 Belgian schoolchildren, some of whom had to be hospitalized June 10 and later, after drinking Coca-Cola. There were other scattered reports of illnesses as well, all apparently in Belgium; by one count more than 100 children had become sick.
The French government late tonight also suspended sales of Coca-Cola Co. canned drinks and ordered stores to pull Coca-Cola products from Belgium from their shelves, radio France Info and news agencies reported.
The Atlanta-based company dismissed the reports of health problems as unfounded. "After thorough investigation, no health or safety issues were found," the company said in a statement.
In a news conference in Brussels, Coca-Cola said the problems stemmed from products produced at two European plants. Philippe Lenfant, general manager of Coca-Cola Belgium, said "bad" carbon dioxide gas in Belgium and a chemical applied to transport palettes in France had contaminated some containers of soft drinks.
The Belgian Health Ministry reportedly said the symptoms of those worst affected involved destruction of red blood cells, or hemolysis, which could damage the kidneys and also could lead to anemia. It was not clear which of the two plants cited by Lenfant caused the symptoms, or whether two different problems led to the same symptoms.
The company said defective carbon dioxide had been used in the bottling of Coca-Cola at a bottling plant in Antwerp, which had resulted in an "off taste." The other problem was caused by wood-treatment chemicals that adhered to the bottoms of cans that were manufactured in France but distributed in Belgium on treated shipping palettes.
According to the company the chemical didn't affect the contents of the can, but the malodorous cans resulted in complaints. A company spokesman in Atlanta said consumers who complained had been "examined, treated and released."
But an adolescent identified as Eva told French television from her hospital bed today: "Yesterday at school I drank a little bottle of Coke. A half-hour later I such a bad stomach ache I couldn't walk. They brought me to the emergency room."
The recalls hit like a thunderclap in Belgium, where excessive amounts of cancer-causing dioxin found in chickens and eggs last week so angered the public that in national elections on Sunday the government was overthrown.
The issue of food and drink and what is in them is culturally sensitive in Europe. Consumers across the continent and Britain strongly support a European Union ban on hormone-treated beef imports from the United States, even though there is no scientific evidence of health damage from consuming beef with hormones. The stated reason: Europeans don't like anyone fooling around with their food.
In the Netherlands, Coca-Cola Enterprises Inc., distributor of Coca-Cola products, asked retailers to recall all of the company's soft drinks made in Belgium. As it turned out, that meant most Coca-Cola products for sale in that neighboring country.
Reeling off the list -- Coke, Diet Coke (known in Europe as Coca Light), Sprite, several flavors of Fanta and Cherry Coke -- Pascale Smeets, spokeswoman for the Dutch grocery chain Albert Hejn, worried that consumers would not distinguish between the Belgian-bottled Coke that was not on the shelves and Dutch-bottled Coke that was safe.
"When there is a recall, the consumer always becomes afraid of the product. It's normal," Smeets said. The 680-store chain can send the recalled products back to Coca-Cola but will have to swallow the lost profit on containers that customers return, she said.
In Belgium, whose health minister, Luc Van den Bossche, is brand new because the last one resigned over the chicken scandal, the government-imposed ban is total as of Monday. Coca-Cola will have to prove its products are safe before they can be reintroduced.
Coca-Cola has had previous product withdrawals "in a market or two" at a time, but spokesman Rob Baskin said this was the first time the company had withdrawn all its bottled and canned products from an entire country. "It is a serious issue, and we took it seriously. And as soon as we learned about it we confiscated all our product and investigated and destroyed it." Baskin said the company couldn't say yet what impact the incident will have on sales.
Staff writer Martha Hamilton contributed to this report from Washington.
CAPTION: Detmar Lehmann tests a sample of Coca-Cola at a government laboratory in Kassel, Germany, to check for contamination.
CAPTION: In Brussels, a store employee clears shelves of Coca-Cola products.