BEIJING (Reuters) - Coca-Cola Co defended on Friday the safety of its yogurt drinks sold in northern China, denying there was any link to the death of a child or the illness of three other people who had consumed the drinks, but said it removed the product from shelves in a precautionary move.
Chinese media reports said an 11-year-old boy died in Changchun city in Jilin after he drank a strawberry-flavored Pulpy Milky yogurt drink on November 28, and his mother was in intensive care after consuming the same drink.
Another mother and her daughter became ill after drinking another bottle of the same drink in Jilin a few days earlier, but recovered after treatment, Coke spokeswoman Joanna Price said.
"Our thoughts are with the affected families and we have reached out to them to express our concern and compassion," she said. "This case does not involve a product quality issue, and government authorities are carrying out detailed investigations at this time."
After discussions with local authorities, the company and officials mutually agreed the product should be removed from shelves from stores in Jilin province and Coke is cooperating with the local investigation, she said.
Local authorities said the beverages were tainted by pesticide, according to local media. There was no further information about how or when the pesticide could have been introduced into the drink.
"Our first priority is always to ensure food safety and the quality of our products," Price said.
"After learning about this incident, we immediately carried out comprehensive internal reviews of our production, logistics and other processes, and conducted 3rd party tests of the retention samples of the same production batches and found everything to be safe," she said.
Food scandals are common in China, where numerous crackdowns on the country's food sector have had little effect as it continues to be beset by poisonings and toxin scandals that have shaken consumer confidence.
Foreign companies are watched closely as they are generally perceived to hold to stricter standards. When western companies are accused of transgressions, it becomes big news in China.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc, the world's biggest retailer, was hit by tough sanctions in the central city of Chongqing in October when authorities closed 13 stores for two weeks and fined the company 2.7 million yuan ($423,000) for selling ordinary pork as more expensive organic meat.
Wal-Mart apologized and stepped up training for employees and dialogue with customers.
Chinese government-run media also criticized U.S. healthcare products maker Johnson & Johnson last month for continuing to sell in some markets baby shampoo containing a preservative that is a possible carcinogen and allergy trigger.
Johnson & Johnson responded that its products meet or exceed safety regulations in every market in which they are sold, but that the company is phasing out use of the ingredients in baby products worldwide.
(Reporting by Terril Yue Jones and Beijing newsroom; Editing by Don Durfee and Muralikumar Anantharaman)