Anybody who advises companies on how to walk the line between trade secret and full ingredient disclosure knows that the threat of a lawsuit weighs as much or more than the regulations in any decision made. Protecting recipes -- whether for beverages, household chemicals, or industrial formulations -- provides a moat against competition. But it deprives the users of information they may want or need to protect their health, or make choices based on their moral values. A lawsuit recently filed against Coca-cola could test the limits of when "secret ingredients" infringe the "independent choices of the individual."According to the Israeli news outlet Globes, an unidentified Muslim man in Israel is suing Coca-Cola's Israeli franchisee, The Central Bottling Company Group Ltd. It all started when ThisAmericanLife published what they claim is an early recipe, possibly the original recipe, for Coca-Cola. The recipe indicates that the secret flavouring, code-named "7X", uses alcohol as a solvent.
The Plaintiff has sued on behalf of every muslim in Israel, claiming 1000NIS for every muslim on the grounds that Coca-cola has been "misleading consumers, infringing the independent choices of the individual, and causing huge mental anguish." With 1.2 million muslims covered by the class action, Coke could be on the line for a third of a billion dollars.
ThisAmericanLife notes that the recipe is definitely not that used for Coke which is currently available for sale, so the first question any lawsuit will face is whether there are grounds: i.e. is alcohol still used in the modern coke recipe? And hopefully Coca-cola is globally sensitive enough that this "secret ingredient" has long since been replaced or it would not have kept the secret.
But it is not the purpose of this writer to evauate the legitimacy or potential for this lawsuit to succeed, rather to highlight the value of this lawsuit to all consumers. This case puts the question of what consumers deserve to know back squarely in the limelight.
Often, when the question of government regulation to protect the consumer arises, a hue and cry to let the free market regulate the situation arises. Unfortunately, a free market only operates efficiently when it is a well-informed market. The line between secrecy and disclosure will remain a hotly contended battleground; but where companies decide to keep secrets, they also take the obligation not to mislead, infringe on our personal choices, or cause huge mental anguish. It is a big responsibility; let's hope the secrecy is worth it.