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Public calm over 'poison Coke'

Thirty-eight-year-old Vladimír Varchola was inserting coins into a Coke dispenser in the lobby of the 'Družba', one of Bratislava's student hostels, when a reporter suddenly interrupted him to ask if he was not afraid of being poisoned. "I'm not afraid," the man replied, and walked off with his Coke.
Many Slovaks have reacted equally calmly to a vicious threat to public health that -strangely - no one seems to care about.
On February 3, Slovakia's Coca-Cola headquarters received an anonymous letter which claimed that the nation's Coke supply had been poisoned, and would continue to be unless Coke handed over 500,000 German marks. Although the Slovak media jumped on the story, mass hysteria did not ensue. Indeed, according to a straw poll done by The Slovak Spectator, the public does not seem to have altered its buying habits greatly.


Anonymous threats that Coca Cola products have been poisoned have been greeted by public indifference.
photo: Alexander Šúry

Thirty-eight-year-old Vladimír Varchola was inserting coins into a Coke dispenser in the lobby of the 'Družba', one of Bratislava's student hostels, when a reporter suddenly interrupted him to ask if he was not afraid of being poisoned. "I'm not afraid," the man replied, and walked off with his Coke.

Many Slovaks have reacted equally calmly to a vicious threat to public health that -strangely - no one seems to care about.

On February 3, Slovakia's Coca-Cola headquarters received an anonymous letter which claimed that the nation's Coke supply had been poisoned, and would continue to be unless Coke handed over 500,000 German marks. Although the Slovak media jumped on the story, mass hysteria did not ensue. Indeed, according to a straw poll done by The Slovak Spectator, the public does not seem to have altered its buying habits greatly.

In the letter, the blackmailer wrote that he had already distributed 10 litres of poisoned coke out of the 100 litres that would eventually find their way onto store shelves. Anton Bódis, external affairs manager with Coca-Cola, said that the culprit had requested that on February 11, a car be left at a specific location in Bratislava with a note on the side window giving a telephone number to call for the money.

"We want 500,000 German marks ($304,000)...otherwise we will continue distributing poisoned beverages for the next three years," read the letter, which was signed with the name 'John'.

But despite the note's claim that the first 10 liters of poisoned Coke have already been distributed, people seem not to have lost their taste for the famous soft drink.

"I'm not afraid, it's a good drink," said a blond university student from Bratislava who added that he would buy it again. His 24-year old African colleague nodded agreement, saying he would have no problem buying Coke despite the news.

Part of the lack of public concern may be due to a lack of information coming from the Coca-Cola company itself. Although Coke, when asked, does provide some safety advice for its customers, it has not broadcast it widely in any language but Slovak. Many foreign students at Bratislava-based Comenius University - Slovakia's largest - were not even aware of the threat.

Miroslava Ambrózová, manager of the beverage section with Kon-Rad grocery warehouse, one of the biggest Coca-Cola purchasers in Bratislava region, said that the Coke affair hadn't influenced their sales at all. Nobody from the Coca-Cola company had informed them about the problem, she said, and the store was contractually bound to purchase a certain amount of the beverage.

"I believe that if the affair was serious, they would let us know and apply some restrictions," she said. Her words was echoed by other small grocery stores in Bratislava.

Forming a huddle

Following the publication of the threatening note, the state-owned news agency TASR reported that Coke had known about the poison scare for a week before telling the public.

TASR reported that in his letter, 'John' wrote that he had called Coke on January 27 and told them about the poison. The company, however, refuted such allegations. "This is not based on truth," Bódis said, adding that the company first discovered the threat with the arrival of the letter on February 3.

Bódis explained that far from ignoring the threat or hiding it from consumers, the company had taken basic measures to secure the Coke supply and broadcast five security steps that should be followed before opening a Coca-Cola beverage. These steps have been published once or twice in Slovak daily newspapers.

"Make sure that the security strips on the caps aren't damaged, that the labels are not missing or ripped off, and that the colour of the beverage is normal," the instructions read. "Make sure the liquid is not leaking out of the container, and that the beverage is sufficiently carbonated."

Bódis explained that the company had a standard security response which is followed in such cases, but would not elaborate.

"If we disclosed the course that we have planned with police, we could hinder the investigation process," Bódis said.

Other large beverage and food producers were similarly cagey about their response mechanisms to threats of poisoning. Miroslava Remenárová, marketing manager of Pepsi-Cola, Coca-Cola's biggest competitor, said only that "our company has clear internal procedures which would be used in such cases and we believe we provide a system of high-level security measures."

McDonald's Slovakia, one of the biggest Coke purchasers on the domestic market, said through its PR representative Tamara Štrbáková that the restaurant chain was always ready to react to such situations and that it had an exact plan, but that details of it could not be divulged.

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