Cola trials

Published : Sep 26, 2003 00:00 IST

THE cola controversy has taken a new turn, with a flurry of tests producing varying results and conclusions. Following the report of the environmental watchdog agency, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), which indicted 12 major cola brands for grossly exceeding the pesticide residue limits set by the European Union (E.U.) norms, the Union government announced its own inquiries into the matter.

The Mysore-based Central Food Technological Research Institute's (CFTRI) report was considerably more muted than the CSE one, and was initially seized upon to undercut the CSE's claims and give `a clean chit' to the cola companies. However, the CFTRI report had found that out of the 12 brands, nine exceeded E.U. norms.

It also pointed out that lindane and chlorpyrifos were detected in all the samples surveyed, while DDT and its metabolites were traced in 58 per cent of the samples and overshot E.U. norms by 1.8 to 12.4 times. The report also emphasised that since the samples tested by the CFTRI and the CSE were from entirely different batches, the results were not comparable.

Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, meanwhile, took the test results to mean that "the government has categorically declared our products safe". PepsiCo was asked to apologise unconditionally for putting out advertisements asking consumers to `refresh their faith' in Pepsi and using misleading bits of Health Minister Sushma Swaraj's statement to endorse its claim that `all these (soft drinks) are within safety limits'. The Minister had stressed the fact that she had only quoted the report, which clearly stated that these drinks violated E.U. standards even though they did abide by domestic norms, which do not currently take pesticide residue into account.

Meanwhile, the second report from the Government's Central Food Laboratory (CFL), Kolkata, virtually echoed the findings of the first, revealing that most soft drink samples had higher levels of pesticide content than permitted by E.U. norms. Like the CFTRI results, it also found that only three of the cola brands - Limca, Pepsi and Diet Pepsi - were within the permissible pesticide limits set by the E.U. Also, while Sprite, 7Up and Blue Pepsi passed the cumulative limits set by the E.U. norms, they failed on single residue limits.

Both laboratories found malathion to be absent in all the samples, whereas in the samples tested by the CSE its level was found to be 87 times the E.U. limit. According to a CSE spokesperson, this could be because "malathion degrades very fast", and may be hard to detect. Another widely publicised test conducted for Outlook magazine by the London-based Central Science Laboratory found that of the 35 pesticides tested for, 31 were not detected at all, or were below E.U. norms.

The CSE, however, has stuck to its guns. Denying charges that its report was premature or irresponsible, it explained these wild variations by pointing to the fact that its samples were collected in January. Sunita Narain, Director, CSE, has said that "pesticide contamination levels could vary depending on the seasons during which pesticides are used and the dilution levels which depend on rainfall". Since then, rainfall would have diluted pollutants 20 to 50 times, which would have altered the groundwater used in the samples tested by the government and other laboratories. The CSE also claimed that their methodology measured pesticides minutely, up to the nanogram level.

As in the case of packaged drinking water, the government would notify limits to match E.U. standards on pesticide content in the water used in carbonated drinks from next January, announced Sushma Swaraj. A 15-member Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) headed by Sharad Pawar has been appointed to investigate the CSE's claims on pesticide residues as well as to evolve "suitable safety standards" for soft drinks, fruit juices and other beverages in which water is the main constituent.

The logic behind appointing a JPC on a patently straightforward health issue may be questionable, but the CSE maintained that it would "cooperate with the JPC and provide all the documentary evidence it takes".

Sunita Narain stressed that this was primarily a public health issue, about the utter lack of regulation in food standards. Moreover, this debate also centred on the use of and access to groundwater by multinational corporations, which was often not paid for or regulated, she added. Responding to PepsiCo chief Rajeev Bakshi's stand that the entire issue had been blown out of proportion, she argued that even tiny amounts of pesticides caused immense damage over time and therefore pesticide use should have far more stringent standards, especially in a country like India, which could not afford the looming public health crisis.

Meanwhile, though the final verdict rests with the JPC's findings, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo are in a bubbly mood as they prepare to regain consumer confidence and get on with business as usual.

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