The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
Email This Page

With the first “official” test report of samples of Coke and Pepsi scheduled to be tabled in Parliament soon, the controversy over the pesticide residue in soft drinks manufactured by the two multinational corporations is far from over. The products of the MNCs have been banned in Parliament canteens and in many other places. Weekly sales are down by 30 to 40 per cent. Is another Erin Brokovich episode in the making' A great deal of fuzziness exists about the real issues. This is inevitable in the midst of all the media hype. So what are the facts and the major issues involved'

It all started with the Delhi-based nongovernmental organization — the Centre for Science and Environment — going to the press with its own laboratory finding that pesticides many times above the European Union norms exist in 12 top soft drink brands in India.

What could be the source of the problem' Two possible explanations are floating around. One, the groundwater in India is contaminated with pesticide residue as a result of excessive use of pesticides by farmers. That gets into bottled colas as the concentrates are mixed with water. If so, then the question is: is it not the responsibility of the soft drink manufacturers to use sufficiently sophisticated processes to eliminate the harmful chemical residue in their final products' Moreover, if groundwater is responsible, then the problem will exist in other products and drinks (like fruit juices) made with water in India. Is that the case'

The second possibility is that the chemicals used to clean the bottles are responsible. Then the question is: why would companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi use such chemicals to clean used bottles' In either case, the companies must have better technologies to get rid of the residues, whatever the cause. CSE further claims that it has checked for pesticides in bottled cold drinks being manufactured and sold in the United States of America, and they were found to be all pesticide free. So the problem is peculiar to India.

Is the CSE finding conclusive' Or is there overreaction' The Delhi high court has given the sensible ruling that the samples will have to be tested in a government laboratory and the report of such analysis will have to be submitted by September 1. It is good that all parties have gracefully accepted the ruling.

What if the official test report confirm CSE findings' Can Coke and Pepsi be charged with violation of Indian laws or standards' The answer is no. The problem is that there are no Indian guidelines on this. In fact, there are three kinds of international guidelines — from the US Food and Drug Administration, World Health Organization and EU. India does not have any mandatory norms for soft drinks. EU norms are the most stringent. Coke and Pepsi allege that by benchmarking against EU norms, CSE has given a biased picture and has created an unnecessary scare. The average of the CSE data on pesticide content is lower than the WHO norms. CSE’s answer is that it did not use the other two norms as those do not cover all the pesticide residues.

Is there a deliberate violation on part of the MNCs with full knowledge of the implications' One cannot be sure. Coke-Pepsi may argue that their own people, including chief executive officers, drink the same thing as other Indians. But then high officials of cigarette companies may also smoke, knowing the risks involved. In the US, internal documents unearthed from cigarette companies show that they knew about the harmful effects of smoking but kept those under wraps. Though not deliberate, that does not reduce the health hazard. However, it may mean less moral responsibility. In any case, it would be difficult to believe that international companies like Coke-Pepsi, with so much resources at their command, were not aware of their products not adhering to EU norms. But, then, they may argue that EU norms are not relevant. They are even arguing that EU norms are designed to give European producers a competitive advantage over others and universal acceptance of EU health and safety norms (specially with regard to genetically modified foods) will be disastrous for the export of Indian agricultural products, raw or processed. For instance, we will not be able to export any dairy products as European norms require that all cows must be machine-milked.

Are MNCs the only villain in this drama' The issue is not foreign versus domestic companies, contrary to what Swadeshi Jagran Manch would have us believe. For example, Bisleri, a mineral water brand produced by Parle, an Indian company, was also found to contain unacceptably high pesticide residue by CSE.

The current controversy has highlighted the absence of an Indian standard for soft drinks. The government needs to involve the Indian scientific community to evolve a mandatory standard, keeping in mind the Indian reality. All companies, Indian or foreign, will have to adhere to the same standards. It is being argued in some quarters that we should not bother about small doses of pesticide residue in soft drinks or mineral water as we, Indians, are being always exposed to a myriad harmful chemicals present in all kinds of food products. But this is not a valid argument. First, the pesticides consumed in even small doses accumulate in the body over time, impair the immune system and may lead to deadly effects like cancer, birth defects and so on. Moreover, the existence of one health hazard does not justify another.

The logical implication of all this should be that we must have mandatory health and safety standards for all kinds of products and then we must strictly monitor and enforce them with stiff penalties. We cannot rely only on government agencies and inspectors to do the monitoring. Concerned citizens will have to come forward and consumer organizations need to be formed. The government administration will have to provide them active support and government laboratories should have the facilities to test the suspect products whenever it is brought to their notice.

There are two major apprehensions. One, after the fizz of the current controversy evaporates, it may go back to business as usual. Media and public attention will turn to new sensational issues. Frankly speaking, we do not know what changes, if any, have been introduced in the mineral water manufacturing business after the media hype about pesticide residues in them died down. The same may happen this time too. The second fear is that we may throw the baby with the bath water. This controversy may be hijacked by the swadeshi lobby to wage a battle against foreign companies, products and investment, rather than focussing on the real issues.

We need solid, patient and continuous work from watchdog NGOs like CSE. But they must also be responsible and accountable for their actions, just like business corporations. They should not overstate their case. They should not rush to the press with such sensational headlines as “Colonization of the Dirty Dozen”. That would only hurt their credibility in the long run.

Email This Page