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State, L.A. Sue Coke Over Lead in Labels

Times Staff Writer

California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer and Los Angeles City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo sued Coca-Cola Co. and its Mexican affiliates Monday, demanding they stop using carcinogenic lead-based paint on labels on soda bottles imported from Mexico.

The lawsuit in Los Angeles County Superior Court is similar to one settled April 21 with rival beverage maker PepsiCo Inc. In that case, Pepsi agreed to remove lead from labels on new bottles and to eliminate existing lead-painted bottles within 10 years.

Both suits were filed under California’s Proposition 65 environmental law. The initiative approved by voters in 1986 allows government and private attorneys to take legal action against businesses that fail to warn consumers of potential exposure to products containing chemicals known to the state to cause cancer or birth defects.

According to the suit, the labels on glass bottles of Mexican-made Coca-Cola, Coca-Cola Light (Diet Coke), Fanta and Sprite are contaminated with high levels of lead and cadmium that can rub off on hands and possibly be ingested. “Lead is so toxic that even minuscule amounts can be hazardous to human health,” the suit says.

“Children are particularly vulnerable,” said Teresa Schilling, a spokeswoman for Lockyer.

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The lawsuit, however, does not allege that the liquid inside the bottles is contaminated.

A joint investigation by Lockyer’s and Delgadillo’s offices found that painted labels on Mexican soft drinks, which are popular particularly with Southern California Latinos, contained as much as 45% lead.

Many Coke and Pepsi connoisseurs contend that Mexican colas taste better because they are sweetened with sugar from cane rather than with the fructose sweeteners used by U.S. bottling plants.

Atlanta-based Coca-Cola is close to reaching its own settlement, similar to the Pepsi agreement, with the state and the city, Schilling said.

All Coca-Cola bottles now sold through authorized distributors in California are completely lead-free, even those from Mexico, the company said.

Pepsi, in its settlement, agreed to pay $500,000 to fund surveillance activities to keep older Mexican bottles out of California and to pay $750,000 to reimburse state agencies for the cost of their investigation.


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