FDA Puts the Smackdown on Four Loko, Joose, Other Caffeinated Alcohol Brands

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Four Loko owner Phusion Projects may have just agreed to cut the caffeine from the alcoholic beverage brand, but it’s not backing down on defending its reputation.

Despite agreeing to reformulate their highly controversial product by removing caffeine, guarana and taurine, Phusion Projects, the drink’s creator, yesterday released a terse announcement stating, “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.”

Phusion’s announcement was issued hours before the brand’s biggest jolt — today’s FDA smackdown on caffeinated alcoholic beverages (CABs) in the US.[more]

Four Loko’s corporate statement takes something of a “woe is us” stance: “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 hoped that clear, consistent, industry-wide standards regulating pre-packaged caffeinated alcoholic beverages would be the outcome of these conversations.  We also hoped others would share our commitment to transparency and fairness.”

United Brands Company, Inc. manufacturer of the Joose and Max brands, also issued a statement in advance of the FDA clampdown, but didn’t pre-emptively tweak its formula.

The category ban, the result of a year-long safety review of caffeinated alcohol drinks, was communicated via warning letters to Phusion regarding Four Loko plus United Brands regarding Max and Joose (the subject of a fan’s video ode, above), and the makers of Core High Gravity, and Moonshot.

“We respect the decision of the FDA, will be reviewing the details of the new guidelines and will be aligning new FDA rules with the demands of our loyal consumer base,” said the president and CEO of United Brands, Michael Michail. “And, as we always have, will market Joose products in a legal and responsible manner.”

Clearly hoping that this “good citizen” approach might salvage whatever remaining reputation they have, the embattled manufacturers have 15 days to inform the FDA how they will respond to the warning letters.

The FDA ban, as expected, shot down any claims that the brands are safe if used responsibly. The White House-approved announcement states that the agency “does not find support for the claim that the addition of caffeine to these  alcoholic beverages is ‘generally recognized as safe,’ which is the legal standard,” said Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, Principal Deputy Commissioner.  “To the contrary, there is evidence that the combinations of caffeine and alcohol in these products pose a public health concern.”

The brand owners most likely have to go above and beyond to retain their place in the U.S. markets, adjusting more than just their recipes. Fighting the category’s popular nickname of “blackout in a can” would be a good first step, as would gracefully handling the lawsuits that have been cropping up against them.

As the federal government moves to control AEDs, officials and parents across the country must be breathing a sigh of relief.

Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) said in a strongly worded statement yesterday, “Let these [FDA] rulings serve as a warning to anyone who tried to peddle dangerous and toxic brews to our children. Do it and we will shut you down.”

Unfortunately, as victimized as Phusion Projects is making itself out to be, you know you’ve got an image problem when the only people on your side are 20-year-old frat boys.

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