BRUSSELS — Coca-Cola Co. prepared to resume Belgian production today after the government agreed to let two factories reopen under strict conditions, two weeks after the first reports of illnesses from children who drank the company's soft drinks.
"Our products are completely safe, both in Belgium and worldwide," M. Douglas Ivester, Coca-Cola's chief executive, said Wednesday, then sipped a bottle of Coke as he addressed reporters in his first news conference since the health scare began June 9.
But a Coca-Cola plant in nearby northern France remained closed as judicial officials opened an investigation to determine why hundreds of people who drank from cans produced there fell ill. Rat poison was detected on the outside of one soft-drink can, but no cause of the illnesses has been detected, said Francois Muguet, a state prosecutor.
The Belgian government, meanwhile, continued to ban imports on beverages produced at the Coca-Cola plant at Dunkirk, France.
But it agreed Wednesday to allow Coca-Cola to resume production at factories in the Belgian communities of Antwerp and Ghent. Without determining the cause, the country's top health official termed the illnesses an accident. Ivester said it would take about two weeks to build up full distribution.
Ivester said Coca-Cola would pay the medical bills of anyone who had fallen ill after drinking Coke products, though he denied the drinks posed any health risk.
Belgium's health minister, Luc Van den Bossche, said that since June 9, there had been 249 cases of illnesses reported in Belgium by people who drank Coke products.
Van den Bossche said government scientists were unable to establish a clear cause for the problem, but said it appeared to have been caused by "an accident during production or transport" that was unlikely to happen again if proper precautions for hygiene were maintained.
Shares of Atlanta-based Coca-Cola closed down 88 cents at $61.75 on the New York Stock Exchange.