The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Probe fizz after cola clean chit
- Joint parliamentary panel on soft drinks

New Delhi, Aug. 21: A joint parliamentary committee will probe the controversy over pesticide-laced colas which received a clean bill of health today from the government on the basis of tests conducted in state-owned laboratories in Hyderabad and Calcutta.

The piquant development arose because the government was forced to concede a demand for a parliamentary probe raised by Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav soon after health minister Sushma Swaraj made a statement in the Lok Sabha claiming that soft drink samples taken by government agencies did “not have pesticide residues of the high order as alleged in reports made by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE)”.

On August 5, the CSE had claimed that its laboratory tests on a random sample of 12 soft drink brands showed they contained cancer-causing pesticide residue that were 11 to 70 times the standards set by the European Union (EU). India has no rules specifying the quality of water that should be used in soft drinks.

In a bid to contain middle-class anger sparked by the CSE report, Swaraj said the Centre would consider introducing the EU standards on water used in soft drinks. The EU standards are far more stringent than those in the US.

Coca-Cola and Pepsi rejoiced after the government report was made public, but they ruled out any move to sue the CSE for tarnishing their reputation. The cola companies have seen soft drink consumption slump by almost 40 per cent across the country since the science centre’s report came out.

Coca-Cola president Sanjiv Gupta, who called a joint press conference with PepsiCo India Holdings managing director Rajiv Bakshi, said: “This announcement (by Swaraj) will ensure continued trust in our brands.”

“We appreciate the ministry’s speedy investigation and the certification that our products are safe,” Bakshi said.

Asked why they did not plan to sue the CSE, Gupta said: “We will instead concentrate our energies on brand-building.”

Congress MP Satyabrata Chaturvedi accused the government of exonerating the two cola firms after “receiving a donation”. Swaraj asked him to name the person who received the payoff.

Mulayam Singh emphasised that the controversial issue had to be viewed as one that could potentially affect the health of millions of people and, hence, the need for a parliamentary probe.

The BJP statement today was viewed by Opposition MPs as an “unusually quick clean chit” to the two multinationals and prompted many in their ranks to seek a parliamentary probe.

Former telecom minister Ram Vilas Paswan caustically told Swaraj her statement seemed to be a certificate for the cola companies.

Perhaps fearing another round of allegations of impropriety, the government was quick to agree to a joint parliamentary committee and the Speaker asked the Centre to move a motion proposing the panel.

Swaraj said the two state-run labs tested 12 soft drink samples and found that nine violated EU norms while three did not.

She said the samples of the 12 brands collected by the government belonged to the same bottling units from where the CSE had sourced them.

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