FDA sanctions alcoholic energy drink distributors

WASHINGTON, DC (RNN) - In the wake of mounting political pressure, Phusion Projects, LLC agreed to remove the caffeine from its popular Four Loko drink, hours before the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a nationwide crackdown on alcoholic energy drinks.

In a joint statement, Phusion's three co-founders said that they'll also remove guarana and taurine from their drinks nationwide. The result is a completely non-caffeinated Four Loko.

"By taking this action today, we are again demonstrating leadership, cooperation and responsible corporate citizenship," said Chris Hunter, Jeff Wright and Jaisen Freeman, who are also managing partners of the company.

Phusion's news preempted an expected announcement from the FDA, which laid down the law on makers of the caffeinated beverages.

Wednesday morning, the FDA issued letters to several companies, warning them that adding caffeine to their malt alcoholic beverages was an "unsafe food additive." The agency also threatened further actions, including seizure of the products, if no reform is made.

"[The] FDA 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."

Several states already have taken their own stands against the drinks prior to the FDA announcement in response to the mounting deaths and illnesses linked to the beverages. A large majority of those illnesses and deaths occurred on college campuses.

College students are attracted to Four Loko because of its taste, availability, potency and caffeine content. The drink contains the equivalent of about three cups of coffee and three cans of beer.

"If you don't like the taste of beer, it doesn't have that flavor which a lot of people don't like," said UH graduate student Jenny Bellville. "And I usually do it because it's cheaper. The not falling asleep also helps, too."

Michigan, Utah, Oklahoma and Washington have since issued short-term emergency bans on the drinks. The Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission banned stores from receiving shipments of the drinks after Nov. 22. And the New York State Liquor Authority gave their stores until Dec. 10 to phase out the products.

Several universities followed suit by banning the drinks from their campuses.

Last month, nine college students in Washington State were hospitalized after a drinking binge that included such drinks. The deaths of two young adults in Florida and one in Long Island, NY have been tied to the drinks.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, who has pressured the FDA to ban the drinks for months, called out the drink makers, who he said peddle "toxic" brews that hurt children.

"Do it and we will shut you down," Schumer said. "This ruling should be the nail in the coffin of these dangerous and toxic drinks. Parents should be able to rest a little easier knowing that soon their children won't have access to this deadly brew."

The FDA said it carried out its own laboratory analysis of these products and consulted peer-reviewed studies, ultimately reaching the conclusion that the co-consumption of alcohol and caffeine "is associated with risky behaviors that may lead to hazardous and life-threatening situations."

Phusion Projects stands by its Four Loko brand, which is known on the street as "blackout in a can" or "liquid cocaine."

"We have repeatedly contended – and still believe, as do many people throughout the country – that the combination of alcohol and caffeine is safe," said the company's founders. "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."

In addition to Phushion Projects, LLC and its Four Loko, five other beverages from three other companies were singled out.

They are: Core High Gravity HG and HG Orange and Lemon Lime Core Spiked from Charge Beverages Corp.; Moonshot from New Century Brewing Co., LLC; and Joose and Max from United Brands Company Inc.

The companies will have 15 days to report to the FDA the specific steps it is taking to remedy its violation of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and prevent any reoccurrences. During that time, those companies will also have the opportunity to file evidence defending their products.

Phusion said it has a history of making concessions and has worked hard to ensure the safe consumption of its product. In an open letter to regulators last month, it expressed an urge to make uniform standards for liquor and malt-based caffeinated alcoholic beverages, an opportunity it was denied.

Copyright 2010 Raycom News Network. All rights reserved. HNN and WECT contributed to this report.