A multi-billion-dollar monster of a beverage company is threatening to sue a Connecticut nutritionist unless she takes back her statements that little kids shouldn't have caffeine-loaded "energy" drinks.
In fact, the company's name happens to be Monster Beverage. But this beverage beast may have slurped up more than it's going to be able to swallow.
"I'm not wrong and I'm not retracting," insists Dr. Deborah Kennedy, a Guilford-based author of a newsletter that goes out to more than 250 schools nationwide.
Kennedy's gotten herself a lawyer, the backing of several members of Congress, mention of her case in a front-page story in the New York Times and national TV show time.
She's also starting a petition on Change.org and says she wants "to get a million ticked-off mama bears and papa bears to sign on."
Monster Beverage claims the statements Kennedy made in her March newsletter "materially damaged Monster and its well-known brand" even though she never mentioned Monster Beverage or any of its products by name.
In the company's March 4 letter, Monster demanded a retraction within five days. So far, Kennedy hasn't heard any more.
"But it doesn't sound to me like they're letting up yet," she adds.
Kennedy's newsletter included information that children had died from energy drinks and warned that young children should "never drink" them.
The company's threatening letter to Kennedy spent a lot of time denouncing and refuting claims that the 2011 death of a Maryland teenager named Anais Fournier was linked to her drinking two 24-ounce cans of Monster Energy just before she died.
A lawyer for the girl's family was quoted by the New York Times as claiming the evidence shows "caffeine toxicity" triggered an underlying heart condition and that's what caused Fournier's death. Monster Beverage officials insist no tests were ever done to check on caffeine levels in her blood.
The only problem here is that Kennedy never mentioned Fournier's death in her newsletter. "I wasn't thinking of her," Kennedy says. "I wasn't even thinking of Monster."
Monster and other energy drink companies have been having a bit of a rough time lately.
Earlier this month, 18 doctors wrote to the Food and Drug Administration to apply standards for soft drinks to energy drinks and other caffeine-boosted beverages. The letter stated that "the best available scientific evidence demonstrates a robust correlation between the caffeine levels in energy drinks and adverse health and safety consequences, particularly among children, adolescents and young adults."
Federal agencies have in fact gotten reports in recent years linking high-caffeine energy drinks to injuries and deaths, including multiple deaths just since October that involved mention of Monster Energy drinks.
Monster's CEO, Rodney Sacks, told investors in February that something like 50 billion cans of energy drinks have been guzzled safely in the last quarter century. He also insisted teens get more caffeine from coffee than from energy drinks.
According to the company, a 16-oz. can of Monster Energy contains about 160 milligrams of caffeine. A 16-oz. Starbucks coffee has something like 330 mg of caffeine, which Monster officials say makes their product much safer.
Critics point out that kids and teenagers aren't likely to be tanking down 16-oz. cups of Starbucks like they would carbonated, sweetened, ice-cold energy drinks.
The focus of the New York Times article was the fact that Monster Energy has decided to call its product a "beverage" rather than a "dietary supplement." One result of that switch is that it won't have to tell the feds about information that might link its product to bad stuff like injuries or deaths.
Company officials say the switch was to stop people from thinking they were lightly regulated as supplement makers, and to let people use food stamps to buy their drinks.
Kennedy insists her newsletter wasn't at all directed at teenagers or young adults. It stemmed from research right in the town where she lives and her growing concerns about children drinking high-sugar and caffeinated beverages.
A parent of her own with two boys (4 and 11), Kennedy has a doctorate and is the founder of Build Healthy Kids, and has been a nutritional researcher, author and consultant for 25 years. She has worked at Yale University, Columbia and Tufts and is now working on her third book.
Kennedy says she recently surveyed 97 kindergarten-fourth graders in Guilford schools and got some disturbing results.
"Seventy-three percent of the kindergarteners said energy drinks are healthy," Kennedy says. "And 68 percent thought they were so healthy they should be drunk every day... That's very concerning."
What concerned Monster Beverage was that part about caffeine drinks and death. (A request for comment from the company for this story got no response.)
A spokesman for Monster told the New York Times that a 7-year-old child of one of the company's employees brought home Kennedy's newsletter. "No child... should be falsely informed that his or her father's company is a child killer," a Monster spokesman was quoted as saying.
Kennedy says she was shocked by Monster Beverage's threatening letter and its demands for retractions. She got in touch with U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who rounded up several congressional colleagues and wrote to Monster asking the company to back off.
Monster Beverages had an estimated $2.1 billion in revenue last year, according to the one investment advisory website, and is the largest publicly traded energy drink company in the world. But its stock price has been dipping of late, down more than 40 percent since last spring, the Times reported.
Kennedy doesn't sound intimidated in the least by the size of her opponent. She's now gotten herself a lawyer and insists she's going to fight: "The only thing I have is my credibility."
"They call themselves Monster," she adds, "so they're living up to their name."