One of the perks of writing for The Coca-Cola Company, besides the free beverages, is getting to access parts of the company you never knew existed.
When Leopoldo Becerra, quality manager for Coca-Cola Europe, casually referred to the Brussels-based Quality Assurance team as "the Coca-Cola CSI team," the nickname certainly caught my attention.
I took the opportunity of a meeting in Brussels the following week to take a couple of hours to go "investigate the investigators." I was greeted by Leopoldo and Yasser, a chemist by training, and asked to put on a white coat and all necessary safety equipment. We walked through a secure door my regular badge wouldn't open. Once inside, Yasser took me around the lab, where he and a team of highly trained chemists, biochemists and other “-ists” work behind the kind of machines that seem to require a PhD just to plug in.
I never confessed to Yasser that I failed chemistry in high school, but somehow I think he could tell, as he patiently explained to me the art and science of detecting and tracking possible issues with a conspicuous bottle of soda sent from a remote corner of the world – what might explain an "off taste" or an "off scent" in this particular product, for example.
Fortunately, those instances are rare, but nothing is left to chance with multiple controls at every stage of the supply chain, from the production of the ingredients, to the bottling plant, to the shelves in a corner store.
You probably don't know it (and neither did I), but while you shop in your neighborhood supermarket, the guy pushing the cart next to yours may be one of our "secret shoppers" who routinely buy Coca-Cola products off the shelf for the Quality Assurance lab to check to ensure the quality of every bottle meets the rigorous standards all our bottling and commercial partners abide by: color, taste, scent, even bottle cap torque. (Turns out the word "torque" can also refer to how much force you need to apply to open a bottle). Some of those samples are sent to the QA lab for further testing.
Yasser relies on his heightened sense of smell as much as he does the large chromatograph machine in front of me to look for clues. A particular scent may put the team on the trail of a storage issue, for instance. He then proceeds to test this hypothesis by combing through the peaks and troughs drawn by the machine in front of me, which is capable of separating each ingredient down to the molecular level: a needle in a haystack looks like child's play compared to spotting what may have happened to that particular bottle out of the millions produced each day.
We often say that every Coke bottle has a story. At "CSI Coca-Cola", I found that there is also a crack team dedicated to discovering the occasional untold story.
Stanislas Magniant is director of online media communications for Coca-Cola Western Europe.
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