On 27 October 2014, social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter erupted in response to rumors that Fireball whisky was being recalled. Fireball whisky is a popular choice among the college set due to its low cost and relatively high alcohol content, with sales rivaling the collegiate staple of Jägermeister in recent years, and so rumors suggesting that a Fireball recall was underway sent ripples of upset across social sites. However, no news reports emerged to suggest Fireball whisky was indeed being recalled or that a recall would affect North American consumers.
As it turned out, the rumor was partially true: While Fireball whisky wasn’t being broadly recalled, it was the subject of recent scrutiny and a partial recall in Finland and Sweden due to the product’s inclusion of propylene glycol. On 27 October 2014, Finland’s national public broadcasting company YLE reported that country’s liquor retail agency was recalling Fireball and offering refunds:
According to Alko, the substance isn’t necessarily detrimental to individuals’ health, although it is used in a wide range of cases from de-icing compounds in the aviation industry to the preparation of snack foods. It’s also used in alcoholic beverages as a flavour carrier.
[T]he Swedish state alcohol retailer Systembolaget withdrew Fireball from distribution after Alko revealed that the beverage contained excessive levels of propylene glycol.
On 26 October 2014, Radio Sweden reported Alko’s Swedish counterpart Systembolaget removed Fireball whisky from shelves due to concerns over propylene glycol content. The broadcast service noted, however, Finland and Sweden’s regulatory policies regarding propylene glycol are fifty times more strict than American regulations:
It is not yet known how high the levels are, or if they pose a risk to public health. Systembolaget is now to carry out its own tests of the brand.
Products sold in the EU are only allowed to contain max 0.1g/kg of the substance, in the USA the limit is 5 grams per kilo.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) deemed propylene glycol to be “generally recognized as safe” when used in foods and beverages “at levels not to exceed current good manufacturing practice.” European Union regulations permit the use of propylene glycol in smaller amounts. Many of the Fireball rumors state the product was “recalled in Europe” because it “contains antifreeze,” but neither statement is accurate:
Motoko Mukai, a principal research scientist at the Department of Food Science at Cornell University, explained that there are different kinds of antifreeze and that the antifreeze that contains propylene glycol is less toxic and more environmentally safe than antifreeze that contains ethylene glycol, which is toxic to humans.
“I saw a lot of media that it’s found in antifreeze; [propylene glycol] is found in environmentally friendly antifreeze,” she said.
Mukai said there are limits on the amount of propylene glycol that can be used in foods and liquors, but that it would be extremely difficult to ingest too much of the chemical through food or drink.
For example, Mukai points out in liquor the chemical can make up to just 50 grams for each kilogram of liquid, or 5 percent. So, she said before a person would get sick from consuming a dangerous amount of the chemical, they would likely get sick from alcohol poisoning.
While Sweden and Finland temporarily restricted the sale and consumption of Fireball whisky, North American sales of the popular spirit were unaffected. Moreover, no change in Fireball whisky’s composition prompted the European recalls: the move was due to differing regulatory protocols in different countries.
On 28 October 2014, Fireball issued an official response to rampant web rumors about the drink’s composition and recall status. In the statement, the brand explained that a logistical mix-up caused bottles intended for the North American market to be shipped to Finland. Fireball added that all formulations are safe to drink, but that the “small recipe-related compliance issue” prompted a temporary recall in some European countries due to minor recipe variations between the versions:
Fireball Cinnamon Whisky assures its consumers the product is perfectly safe to drink. There is no recall in North America. Fireball fans can enjoy their favorite product as they always have.
Late last week, Sazerac, the makers of Fireball, was contacted by its European bottler regarding a small recipe-related compliance issue in Finland.
Regulations for the product formulation are different in Europe, which explains why recipes for products like soft drinks, alcohol/spirits and even candies and confections are slightly different than their North American counterparts. Fireball, therefore, has a slightly different recipe for Europe.
Unfortunately, Fireball shipped its North American formula to Europe and found that one ingredient is out of compliance with European regulations. Finland, Sweden and Norway have asked to recall those specific batches, which is what the brand is doing. Fireball anticipates being back on the shelves for fans in these countries within three weeks.
The ingredient in question was propylene glycol (PG). PG is a regularly used and perfectly safe flavoring ingredient. PG has been used in more than 4,000 food, beverage, pharmaceutical and cosmetic products for more than 50 years. Most people consume PG every day in soft drinks, sweeteners, some foods and alcoholic beverages.
The ingredient is “generally recognized as safe (GRAS)” by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration up to 50 grams per KG. In Canada, its use is limited to “good manufacturing practice” with no defined numerical limit. It is used in the Fireball flavor in very small quantities, less than 1/8th of the amount allowed by the US FDA regulations.
All Fireball formulas are absolutely safe to drink and the use of PG in Fireball creates no health risks whatsoever. There is no recall in North America. Fireball fans can continue to enjoy their favorite product as they always have.
As noted in the Fireball whisky statement above, not only is no US recall underway, European Fireball drinkers had the spirit back on shelves within weeks of the statement issued on 28 October 2014.