New Delhi, Aug. 13: Coca-Cola India today received a strong rebuff from the Supreme Court which refused to entertain the cola multinational’s petition seeking independent testing of its soft drink brands to prove that they were safe to consume.
Rejecting Coke’s contention that the Union and state governments should not take action on the basis of an NGO’s report that its soft drinks contained unacceptably high pesticide residue, a division bench of Justices S. Rajendra Babu and A.R. Lakshmanan observed that no right of the cola company was infringed upon, declining the plea.
The bench allowed Kapil Sibal, senior counsel for Coca-Cola, to withdraw the petition, which in legal parlance is known as “dismissed as withdrawn”.
The judges wondered why some cola companies had moved the Delhi and other high courts while others chose to approach the apex court directly.
The bench also declined to entertain Sibal’s plea that the petition be treated as a public interest litigation (PIL) as it would “protect the interest of the consumers” at large.
“We approached the Supreme Court to quickly address the current consumer confusion on this issue. The Supreme Court did not want to interfere at this early stage but said we could return later if necessary,” said Sunil Gupta, vice-president, public affairs and communications, at Coca-Cola India.
In a signed statement, Coke said: “We continue to believe that a consistent, professional testing protocol is necessary if the interests of consumers and the interests of beverage manufacturers are to be jointly served.”
The statement said “consumers need to know that the products they are buying in one part of India are manufactured under the same quality and safety standards that apply in all other parts of the country”.
Earlier, Sibal said various municipalities in Bengal, Punjab and Rajasthan had initiated the process to ban the sale of Coca-Cola “merely” on the basis of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) report.
The judges said the petitioner could approach “whichever forum” he deemed appropriate to “enforce his right” but “we will not entertain this petition”.
Last week, Pepsi-Cola had made a similar plea before Delhi High court, which ordered the government to form a body of experts to test the soft drink samples.
Sibal today requested the Supreme Court to issue an order to the various governments not to ban the sales of the soft drink “at least” till a committee of experts to be set up by the Union government tested the samples and gave its opinion.
Interestingly, Sibal admitted that the CSE report had hurt Coke sales as public across the country were shunning soft drinks — a point that Coca-Cola India has consistently refused to acknowledge.
When the judges declined to accept any of his arguments, Sibal said if the Supreme Court refused to entertain the plea, where else could the manufacturers go, advancing the “doctrine of forum shopping”. The judges said there were many “appropriate forums” as the cola company was selling its products throughout the country.
The Bihar government today jumped on to the testing bandwagon by collecting soft drink samples from the Coke factory in Pataliputra and Pepsi’s unit in Hajipur. The samples were collected by the state’s health department and sent for testing to the Central Food Laboratory in Calcutta. The department will start further action after the laboratory submits its reports on the findings.
There is, however, one bit of good news for Coca-Cola India, which has had a rough week since the CSE revelations on August 5. Kerala’s health minister P. Sankaran informed the state Assembly today that an interim test report on samples of Coca-Cola from the company’s Plachimada plant in Kerala had revealed that the sludge did not contain cadmium and the lead content was much lower than the permissible level.
The US embassy today said it was “carefully following” the controversy over the alleged presence of pesticides in soft drinks made by Coca-Cola and Pepsi, adds PTI.
“Coca-Cola and Pepsi are working intensively with the Indian government to clarify these issues with the assistance of independent scientific experts and laboratories,” the embassy said in a release.
Both Coca-Cola and Pepsi are confident that their products meet or exceed the highest national and international quality and safety standards, it said.
Stating that the embassy was in close contact with the two companies, the release said: “Coca-Cola and Pepsi are highly reputable and responsible firms with worldwide operations. They have repeatedly emphasised it is their top priority to provide the consumer with safe products”.