Venezuela bans Coke Zero, cites "danger to health"

CARACAS Wed Jun 10, 2009 7:52pm EDT

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CARACAS (Reuters) - The Venezuelan government of U.S.-critic President Hugo Chavez on Wednesday ordered Coca-Cola Co to withdraw its Coke Zero beverage from the South American nation, citing unspecified dangers to health.

The decision follows a wave of nationalizations and increased scrutiny of businesses in South America's top oil exporter.

Health Minister Jesus Mantilla said the zero-calorie Coke Zero should no longer be sold and stocks of the drink removed from store shelves.

"The product should be withdrawn from circulation to preserve the health of Venezuelans," the minister said in comments reported by the government's news agency.

Despite Chavez's anti-capitalist policies and rhetoric against consumerism, oil-exporting Venezuela remains one of Latin America's most Americanized cultures, with U.S. fast-food chains, shopping malls and baseball all highly popular.

Mantilla did not say what health risks Coke Zero, which contains artificial sweeteners, posed to the population.

Coke Zero was launched in Venezuela in April and Coca-Cola Femsa, the Mexico-based company that bottles Coke products locally, said at the time it aimed to increase its market share for low calorie drinks by 200 percent.

Neither Coca-Cola nor the bottler responded to requests for comment on Wednesday.

The bottler was plagued with labor problems last year in Venezuela when former workers repeatedly blocked its plants demanding back pay.

The government this year has seized a rice mill and pasta factory belonging to U.S. food giant Cargill and has threatened action against U.S. drug company Pfizer.

Chavez has also nationalized a group of oil service companies including projects belonging to Williams Companies and Exterran.

(Reporting by Fabian Cambero and Antonio de la Jara; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Christian Wiessner)

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