FDA to Explain Its Stance on the Dangers of Four Loko

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The FDA has just announced two conference calls today, presumably to announce what it's going to do about caffeine-alcohol beverages. These will explain the results of FDA's review of the safety of these drinks.

The media teleconference (listen-only mode) will be held today, Wednesday, November 17, 2010 at 1:00 PM EST.

The media teleconference will involve brief presentations by Margaret Hamburg, M.D., commissioner, Food and Drug Administration; Joshua Sharfstein, M.D., principal deputy commissioner, FDA; John Manfreda, administrator, Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau; David Vladeck, director, Bureau of Consumer Protection, Federal Trade Commission; Robert Brewer, Ph.D., Alcohol Program Leader, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Tom Miller, Iowa State Attorney General; and, Robert McKenna, Washington State Attorney General.

Media Teleconference: Caffeinated Alcoholic Beverages

Call-in number: Domestic: 800-619-8521; International: 210-839-8504

Participant pass code: "FDA"

Replay number: Domestic: 866-501-8774; International: 203-369-1854

The stakeholder teleconference will be held today, Wednesday, November 17, 2010 at 2:15 PM EST.

The stakeholder teleconference will involve a brief presentation by Joshua Sharfstein, M.D., principal deputy commissioner, FDA, and Robert Brewer, Ph.D., Alcohol Program Leader, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, followed by a question and answer session. The moderator for the teleconference will be Lawrence Bachorik, Assistant Commissioner, Office of External Relations, Office of External Affairs, FDA.

Stakeholder Teleconference: Caffeinated Alcoholic Beverages

Call-in number: Domestic: 888-972-6517; International: 630-395-0368

Participant pass code: "FDA1″

Replay number: Domestic: 888-402-8742; International: 203-369-3723

Replay pass code: 9851

What this is about:

Ever ahead of the game, The New York Times announced yesterday that the FDA would soon be doing something about the caffeinated alcohol beverages that have caused so much trouble on college campuses recently (see previous post on this).

Today, Phusion Projects, the maker of the drink, says it will voluntarily take the caffeine out of Four Loko.

Why? In a statement, Phusion Projects explains:

We are taking this step after trying—unsuccessfully—to navigate a difficult and politically-charged regulatory environment at both the state and federal levels....We have repeatedly contended—and still believe, as do many people throughout the country—that the combination of alcohol and caffeine is safe...If it were unsafe, popular drinks like rum and colas or Irish coffees that have been consumed safely and responsibly for years would face the same scrutiny that our products have recently faced....By taking this action today, we are again demonstrating leadership, cooperation and responsible corporate citizenship.

Yeah, right. Irish coffees are hardly considered party drinks.

Phusion Projects is acting because it is being forced to. FoodSafetyNews has kept score. So far, Oklahoma, Michigan, Utah, and Washington have banned drinks that combine caffeine with alcohol. New York's largest beer distributors have stopped selling the drinks. And several colleges have banned the drinks on campuses.

And where are the regulatory agencies in all this? Alcohol beverages are not regulated by the FDA. They are regulated by the Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) of the Treasury department. From the government's standpoint, alcohol is about tax revenues, not health. As Phusion Projects explains, all this is TTB's fault:

If our products were unsafe, we would not have expected the federal agency responsible for approving alcoholic beverage formulas—the Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB)—to have approved them. Yet, all of our product formulas and packaging were reviewed and approved by the TTB before being offered to consumers.

Why is the FDA involved in this at all? Because it regulates food additives—like caffeine and the other supplements put into energy drinks.

If this incident illustrates anything, it's that alcohol beverages require the same kind of scrutiny given to any other food product and their regulation needs to move to an agency that cares about their effects on health.


This post also appears on foodpolitics.com.

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Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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