Banned Version of Four Loko Still Sold

FourLoko_cansChelsia Rose Marcius An image of a store shelf at the Houston Village Farm on the corner of First Avenue and Fourth Street featuring the banned version of the caffeinated alcoholic beverage Four Loko.

Along the left-side wall of a bodega on Avenue B stands a row of glass door refrigerators, stocked with an assortment of alcoholic beverages from bottles of Budweiser to cans of Coors Light.

Three shelves down in the first fridge, there’s also another beer-like brew — Four Loko, the caffeinated alcoholic beverage that created a buzz before it was banned last year in several states, including New York.

The manager of this minimart — who spoke only on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job — said he knows it’s “illegal” to sell this version of the drink, an alcohol and caffeine combo that was manufactured by Phusion Projects last year before the company reformulated the product to eliminate caffeine. Yet more than seven months after the December 2010 ban took effect, several East Village establishments continue to sell the old Four Loko, a top selling brand name that brings some small businesses big bucks.

The Local visited 39 East Village establishments along Broadway, Third Avenue, Second Avenue, First Avenue, Avenue A, Avenue B, Avenue C and Avenue D. Of these, 26 sold the new, non-caffeinated Four Loko.

However, five stores — Le Basket, 683 Broadway; Houston Village Farm, 61 First Avenue; 1st Ave Village Farm & Grocery, 113 First Avenue; Village Magazine, Cigar & Gourmet Food, 102 Second Avenue; and 21 Produce Corp., 21 Avenue B. — were still selling the banned product, as of Thursday.

Le BasketChelsia Rose Marcius
Houston Village FarmChelsia Rose Marcius Le Basket (top) and Houston Village Farm.

New York State Beer Wholesalers Association agreed to stop selling alcoholic beverages containing stimulants such as caffeine. William Crowley of the New York State Liquor Authority said wholesalers were to cease distribution to retailers after Dec. 10, 2010. He also noted that retailers “weren’t given an exact date” to sell off the product, and were granted “a little more time to clear their inventories so they weren’t taking a financial hit for purchasing the product before it became illegal.”

As to whether establishments still have the caffeinated Four Loko, Mr. Crowley said it’s “highly unlikely.”

“If they did, that would certainly be a red flag,” he said. “We have would go in and check the books and records to see when they purchased it.”

Small business owners could be charged with unauthorized purchase and unauthorized sale for buying Four Loko after Dec. 10, 2010, Crowley said, which could result in a $1,500 to $2,000 fine and — depending on several other factors, including the number of unauthorized purchases — the revocation of the store’s liquor license.

Vick Mukhia, manager of the Houston Village Farm on the corner of First Avenue and Fourth Street, said he sold out of the caffeinated Four Loko back in March.

“We’ve been getting complaints for a long time that we’re not selling the old Four Loko,” he said. “If we get complaints, that means we don’t have any. Obviously everyone wanted the caffeinated version; that makes you crazy. With the new one, the craziness is not there so people don’t buy it.”

Phusion Projects released a statement Nov. 16, 2010 that it would reformulate its products and remove caffeine from Four Loko, as well as the ingredients guarana and taurine. The announcement came one day before the Federal Drug Administration issued a warning letter to Phusion Projects and three other makers of caffeinated alcoholic beverages — known commonly as CABs — calling the caffeine in these malt alcoholic beverages an “unsafe food additive.”

Village Magazine Cigar & Gourmet FoodChelsia Rose Marcius
21 Produce Corp.Chelsia Rose Marcius Village Magazine (top) and 21 Produce Corp.

“It was the mixing a stimulant” — caffeine — “with a depressant” — alcohol — “that generated the warning letters,” said Doug Karas, a spokesman for the Food and Drug Administration. “The levels of caffeine were far greater than what is generally recognized as safe. If you’re seeing Four Loko on the shelves now, it’s not the product with caffeine in it.”

Lawrence King, a business counselor at the New York State Small Business Development Center, said it’s easy for store owners to overlook information about product recalls, noting that this “kind of information must be reinforced not only once but twice or three times,” and it’s often up to the distributor to notify retailers that the product in question must be taken off the shelves.

Mr. Mukhia and the Avenue B minimart manager said that they did not receive such notifications.

“No one came to investigate if we got it out or not,” said Mr. Mukhia, who said he did not remember receiving a letter to his business regarding the Four Loko recall. The manager of the Avenue B location said he continues to receive shipments of the caffeinated Four Loko from the New York distributor, Plantains Wholesale Beverage Inc..

A worker at Plantains denied that the distributor was shipping the banned version of Four Loko.

“That’s not possible, they’ve taken it out of the market,” said Roberto Monterrosa, who works in the inventory department of Plantains, which is based on the Lower East Side. “We don’t have it, it’s totally gone. We sell the new version. No one can sell the others.”

Steve Harris, president of the New York State Beer Wholesalers Association, said that the group represents most of the state’s beer distributors and that he’s “fairly confident that there was no distribution past the November cut off date.” Chris Short, a media spokesman at Phusion Projects, said in an e-mail message, “we voluntarily reformulated our product and stopped producing and shipping our old products last November. Since then, we’ve been working with our distributors and retailers to make sure the old products are removed from the shelves.”

1st Ave Village Farm & GroceryChelsia Rose Marcius The 1st Ave Village Farm & Grocery.

Whether in-state or out-of-state distributors continue to sell the caffeine-infused drink to retailers, or if store owners simply stocked up before New York put the brakes on the beverage, some residents say they still see East Village party-goers chugging colorful cans of the brew.

“I’m tired of coming home at five in the morning and almost stepping in purple and green throw-up in the street,” said David Santa, 22, who works as a D.J. in the East Village and said he’s seen the caffeinated Four Loko at various area clubs. “That’s the last thing I want to see and I see it all the time.”

Buying the Banned Version of Four Loko

Chelsia Rose Marcius visits five local convenience stores where the banned version of the caffeinated alcoholic beverage is still sold.

Four Loko in the East Village from Chelsia Rose Marcius on Vimeo.

Where the Banned Four Loko is Still Sold

Compiled by Chelsia Rose Marcius.

View Caffeinated Four Loko in a larger map.