Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Thursday, February 9, 2006


Page 11



High Court Rules on Seizure of Coca-Cola as Contraband




Federal officers on Oct. 20, 1909 seized 40 barrels and 20 kegs of Coca-Cola syrup that had been transported from Atlanta, Georgia to Chattanooga, Tennessee. The government charged various violations of the Food and Drug Act of 1906.

Ironically, one of the allegations was not that the beverage contained “coca” (a product of which is cocaine)—but that it didn’t. The accusatory pleading (known as a “libel”) alleged that “said food product ‘Coca Cola’ contained no coca and little, if any, Cola.” Calling the substance “Coca-Cola” constituted mislabeling, in violation of the act, the pleading asserted.

It also charged that Coke was “adulterated” because it contained “an added ingredient, caffeine.” The information characterized caffeine as a “deleterious” and “poisonous ingredient.”

The Coca-Cola Company argued that while Coke didn’t contain coca or cola, it did include “certain elements or substances derived from coca leaves and cola nuts.” And the “small portion of caffeine” in the soda pop was an ingredient in the recipe, not an adulterant, it maintained.

The case came before U.S. District Judge Edward Sanford of the middle and eastern districts of Tennessee. Sanford was later a member of the United States Supreme Court (from 1923-30).

Strangely, the U.S. Attorney’s Office virtually abandoned its contention that “cola” wasn’t present—a contention that office had asserted at a trial in 1903 over taxation of Coke as a medicine. The focus now was on “coca” over “cola,” though the primary issue had become whether the insertion of caffeine violated the statutory proscription on any “added deleterious ingredient.”

On April 7, 1911, Sanford directed a verdict in favor of the Coca-Cola Company on the two key counts.

A product is not “adulterated,” he said, if “it contains no poisonous or deleterious ingredients in addition to its normal and customary constituents,” and caffeine was an “essential ingredient” in Coke.

Whether the product contained coca leaves was immaterial, the judge concluded, because under the act, “a compound known as an article of food under its own distinctive name, not an imitation of or offered for sale under the distinctive name of another article, properly labeled with the place of manufacture, and not containing any added poisonous or deleterious ingredients, shall not be deemed to be misbranded.”

Other questions, Sanford held, would go to the jury. The government’s response was to withdraw the remaining allegations so it could take an immediate appeal.

The Atlantic Constitution observed the following day:

“The coca-cola case has been one of the most important ever heard in the federal court in the south, and the cost of the litigation has been enormous. It is said that $200,000 will not cover the expenses. Both sides have had experts from all sections of the country, the most eminent scientists, principally chemists and physicians. The government has spared no expense in the effort to prove its contentions, and the coca-cola people have been equally liberal in securing expert testimony.”

An editorial in that newspaper on April 9, 1911 thundered that the federal government “disregards the man-slaying whisky whose manufacture and sale it licenses” yet “picks out the producers of a southern soda fountain drink for persecution in a way that might have blasted their reputations, had they not been men of unassailable integrity in their own community.”

The Sixth U.S. District Court of Appeals on June 13, 1914, affirmed. An intriguing aspect of the opinion was the prospect it raised that Coca-Cola might be viewed as “adulterated” if the manufacturer ceased to add caffeine.

Judge Arthur Carter Denison noted that one part of the 1906 act “declares adulteration if any valuable constituent has been abstracted.”

Caffeine, he observed, “is a valuable constituent.”

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed in an opinion by Justice Charles Evans Hughes rendered May 22, 1916 (19 days before Hughes resigned to run unsuccessfully for president on the Republican and Progressive tickets).

Rejecting Sanford’s view that foods are adulterated only if harmful ingredients are added in more than a normal quantity, Hughes declared “that it was the intention of Congress that the artificial introduction of ingredients of a poisonous or deleterious character which might render the article injurious to health should cause the prohibition of the statute to attach.” As to whether caffeine is “injurious to health,” he wrote that “there was a decided conflict of competent evidence” and that “the question was plainly one of fact which was for the consideration of the jury.”

Whether Coca-Cola was “descriptive” of a compound with both coca and cola in it, or “had attained a secondary meaning as the name of a compound from which either coca or cola ingredients were known to be absent,” also was a jury question, the jurist said. If descriptive, he wrote, the jury would have to weigh competing testimony as to whether the product contained any coca.


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