Caffeine warning after death ‘lacks understanding’

Food & Grocery Council rejects coroner's suggestion for health warnings on soft drinks.

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.

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