Member log in

Caffeine warning after death ‘lacks understanding’

The Food & Grocery Council has rejected suggestions by the Otago-Southland coroner for health warnings on soft drinks.

David Crerar found Invercargill mother-of-eight Natasha Harris died aged 30 from the effects of drinking up to 10 litres a day of Coca-Cola, an amount that exceeds the recommended safe daily limit of caffeine and contains almost 1kg of sugar.

Although Mr Crerar absolved Coca-Cola from blame, he said the product was a contributing factor and he recommended the government consider imposing caffeine and sugar warnings similar to those for energy drinks.

FCG chief executive Katherine Rich says while the coroner is no doubt well intentioned, his comments show a lack of understanding of the food regulatory system.

“The food labelling system that New Zealand shares with Australia permits caffeine in cola-type soft drinks up to a maximum level of 145mg/kg. This level has been assessed as being safe for children and adults to consume in soft drinks.

“Warnings are mandatory on energy drinks where caffeine levels are higher than 145mg/kg.”

She says neither the Ministry of Health nor Environmental Science & Research are responsible for food labelling – that’s the domain of the Ministry for Primary Industries, which oversees and enforces a transtasman food code developed by Food Standards Australia New Zealand.

“Guidelines for the use of caffeine in the food supply are currently the subject of an official review, and FGC will be making a submission to this review,” Ms Rich says.

Although Ms Harris’ death is a “tragic and complicated case”, Ms Rich says it does not provide a strong case for changes to either labels or caffeine levels.

“In his finding, the coroner recognises that tobacco warning labels made absolutely no difference to Ms Harris’ decision to smoke up to 30 cigarettes a day, so it’s hard to reconcile this with the recommendation that warning labels on caffeinated beverages should be considered and may have influenced her decision to consume excessive amounts of soft drink.

“No regulatory system can legislate for extreme cases. There isn’t a labelling regime in the world that could have prevented such a tragic case, where a person consumed the equivalent of up to 30 cans of soft drink a day, the sheer volume of which crowded out the possibility of receiving vital nutrients from other food sources.

“Nutrition experts have made it clear that even the consumption of the same volume of water or any other food would have been just as damaging in the long term.”

Ms Rich notes that discussion around caffeine levels or labelling eventually faces the conundrum that coffee, tea and chocolate are also major sources of caffeine. 

“New Zealanders are unlikely to support the idea that their flat whites and chocolate bars should come with a health warning,” she says.

More by Nevil Gibson

Comments and questions
8

Coke is a waste of money and contributor to the worldwide obesity epidemic. There should be warning labels on the amount of sugar it contains (and on all other soft and energy drinks).

There are enough shrill warnings from nanny's like you to make this entirely unnecessary. This is just an attempt by various special interest groups to make someone else pay for their propaganda.

At last some common sense being aired. Any idiot that knocks back 30 cans of Coke a day clearly is missing some clues in life.

Sad yes, but trying to solicit a payment out of Coke for someone's own stupidity is nothing but extortion.

The Coroner's rush to lay blame reeks more of seeking higher public office especially with the comment that Coke (and no doubt many other products) should have a health warning on it.

New Zealanders really need to find that pioneering spirit instead of trying to blame everyone else for their problems.

I agree with the FCG here. Ms Harris' death was the very definition of Darwin's theory of natural selection.

No, this is not natural selection, more correctly termed non-random reproduction. She had already reproduced, and so those genes remain in the gene pool.

This whole debate avoids the key issue - personal responsibility.
If you consume any food to the extent that it is seriously unhealthy, then there are consequences - sadly in this case the lady died.
But nevertheless, everything that we do in life has consequences, for good or bad.
So why do we have this continual plea for the authorities "to do something" - you live according to how you choose to live - period.

Agree, it's all about personal responsibility.
As for why she died, anyone with a basic understanding of chemistry and the osmosis will have no doubt as to why this woman ended up dead.
You can't put that much sugar into your body with seriously screwing up your cell hydration ... and it will do you in way before the sugar makes you fat.

Anyone seen the futuristic city depicted in Sly Stallone movie "Demolition Man" ??? Thats where we are heading.

Hope you all enjoy Tofu.