Why the Coronavirus Outbreak Could Stall Diet Coke Production

The beverage giant is only concerned if things deteriorate "in the longer term."

The coronavirus outbreak has thrown all sorts of industries into disarray, including restaurants and travel, among many others. As a global behemoth, Coca-Cola would certainly be expected to feel an impact—but one of the ways the COVID-19 situation may affect the beverage maker is a bit unexpected: We could possibly see a tighter supply of Diet Coke and other sugar-free drinks.

A bottle of diet Coke
George Frey / Stringer/Getty Images

According to an annual report released earlier this week, Coca-Cola wrote, "Our supply chain for non-nutritive sweeteners [such as aspartame and sucralose] and certain other ingredients for our products includes suppliers in China. As a result of the outbreak of the novel coronavirus COVID-19, beginning in January 2020, our suppliers in China have experienced some delays in the production and export of these ingredients. We have initiated contingency supply plans and do not foresee a short-term impact due to these delays. However, we may see tighter supplies of some of these ingredients in the longer term should production or export operations in China deteriorate."

Though the report doesn't specifically state which artificial sweeteners are affected, it does state, "We purchase sucralose, which we consider a critical raw material, from suppliers in the United States and China," before adding that the company "generally has not experienced major difficulties in obtaining its requirements for non-nutritive sweeteners."

According to Coca-Cola's facts site, sucralose can be found in a number of drinks in the U.S., including Dasani Flavors, Diet Coke with Splenda, Minute Maid Sparkling (such as the Fruit Punch and Mixed Berry flavors), and Powerade Zero (it should be noted that Splenda, specifically, is produced in the United States). Meanwhile, if other sweeteners are affected, that list could grow substantially. For instance, regular Diet Coke and Coca-Cola Zero Sugar are both sweetened with aspartame, as are a large swath of the company's other no-calorie products from brands Sprite.

CNN states that they reached out to Coca-Cola for additional details on which sweeteners were being affected but the company refused to comment beyond the report. Going back to that report, Coca-Cola does write that even it isn't sure what the overall impact of the coronavirus will be. "While we currently expect this business disruption to be temporary, there is uncertainty around its duration and its broader impact, and therefore the effects it will have on our business," they explain. "However, based on our current expectations, we believe this disruption will negatively impact our unit case volume and financial results for the first quarter of 2020. At this time, we do not expect this disruption to have a significant impact on our full year 2020 unit case volume or financial results."

It's also worth noting that, in an announcement last week, Coca-Cola wrote, "The company's deepest sympathies go out to those who have been impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak," adding that they were "following all government guidelines and taking precautionary steps to do what it can to prevent the further spread of the virus" and "donating to organizations that are working diligently to support patients and contain the virus," as well as working to ensure the "safety and health of the company's associates."

Basically, though a possibility, no, a Diet Coke shortage doesn't appear to be imminent. And if things do get so bad that Diet Coke supplies are running low, getting a Diet Coke may suddenly have plummeted down your list of immediate concerns.

Update Feb. 27, 2020: A Diet Coke spokesperson contacted Food & Wine to state, "Please be aware that we do not anticipate a shortage of Diet Coke or Coke Zero related to sucralose because those products do not contain sucralose. We have initiated contingency supply plans for ingredients sourced from China, and we do not expect any impact to our customers or consumers at this time."

Update Feb. 28, 2020: This article has been amended to clarify that Splenda, a sucralose product, is produced in the United States.

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