NEW DELHI -- One of India's leading voluntary agencies, the Center for Science and Environment (CSE) said Tuesday that soft drinks manufactured in India, including those carrying the Pepsi and Coca-Cola brand names, contain unacceptably high levels of pesticide residues.
The CSE analyzed samples from 12 major soft drink manufacturers that are sold in and around the capital at its laboratories and found that all of them contained residues of four extremely toxic pesticides and insecticides--lindane, DDT, malathion and chlorpyrifos.
"In all the samples tested, the levels of pesticide residue far exceeded the maximum permissible total pesticide limit of 0.0005 mg per liter in water used as food, set down by the European Economic Commission (EEC)," said Sunita Narain, director of the CSE at a press conference convened to announce the findings.
The level of chlorpyrifos was 42 times higher than EEC norms, their study showed. Malathion residues were 87 times higher and lindane--recently banned in the United States--21 times higher, CSE scientists said.
They added that each sample was toxic enough to cause long-term cancer, damage to the nervous and reproductive systems, birth defects, and severe disruption of the immune system.
Samples from brand leaders Coca-Cola and Pepsi had almost similar concentrations of pesticide residues in the CSE findings. Contaminants in Pepsi samples were 37 times higher than the EEC limit while its rival Coca-Cola exceeded the norms by 45 times, the same findings showed.
The chiefs of the Indian subsidiaries of Coca-Cola and Pepsi were quick to refute the charges made at the press conference. Sanjeev Gupta, president of Coca-Cola India, called the revelations made by CSE "unfair" and said his company was being subjected to a ''trial by media''.
"All Coca -Cola products are repeatedly tested for safety norms. This is unacceptable," he said over the telephone.
Gupta and the chief of the Pepsi India, Rajiv Bakshi, have called for an independent inquiry led by India's top scientists to settle the issue.
Coca-Cola, the world's "most valuable brand" at $70 billion, is already defending charges made by British Broadcasting Corp Radio 4 last month that waste sludge distributed to farmers from its plant at Plachimada in southern Kerala state has high concentrations of the toxic metal cadmium.
In a joint press conference by Pepsi and Coke here Tuesday evening, Bakshi and Gupta said they were contemplating legal action against the CSE because the revelations had harmed the industry.
"We expect a temporary setback for about a week or so and then we are sure the consumers will have the same confidence in us they have always shown," said Bakshi. But Narain said the CSE stood by its findings.
Six months ago, CSE announced findings that nearly all bottled mineral water manufactured in India, including brands owned by Pepsi and Coca-Cola had large amounts of pesticides. This led to a massive government crackdown.
At the time, Delhi state health minister A K Walia, a qualified physician himself, upheld the CSE findings and its laboratory. "They (CSE) are using sensitive, internationally accepted methods," he said.
CSE scientists H. B. Mathur and Sapna Johnson, who were present at the press conference, said their basic inference was that, as with the bottled mineral water, the soft drink manufacturers were drawing their water supplies from groundwater that is heavily contaminated by years of indiscriminate pesticide use.
High pesticide residues were reported in groundwater around Delhi two years ago, when the government's Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) and the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) carried out a study which also reported excessive salinity, nitrate and fluoride content besides traces of lead, cadmium and chromium.
Independent surveys have shown that tap water in the capital drawn from the Yamuna river and treated by Delhi Jal Board, the state-owned water utility, was loaded with bacteria that can cause cholera, typhoid and hepatitis. It also contained unacceptable amounts of solids and dissolved matter.
Narain said it was not easy to take the companies to court because they hide behind a "meaningless maze" of government regulations concerning the manufacture of soft drinks, which are completely ineffective and designed to help the soft drink industry rather than consumers.
The Prevention of Food Adulteration (PFA) Act of 1954 and the Fruit Products Order (FPO) of 1955--both aimed at regulating the quality of contents in beverages - do not even provide scope for regulating pesticides in soft drinks.
Lax standards on food products are cited as one reason why India has not been able to make a dent in the international market. Last week, a European agency ordered alerts on chili powder imported from India because samples were found to be adulterated with banned carcinogenic dyes.
Significantly, the CSE laboratories tested samples of soft drink brands popularly sold in the United States as control--and found that they did not contain any pesticide residue.
In 2001, Indians consumed over 6.5 billion bottles of soft drinks Their growing popularity means that children and teenagers, who glug these bottles, are drinking a toxic potion, activists say.
CSE found that the regulations for the powerful and massive soft drinks industry are much weaker, indeed non-existent, as compared to those for the bottled water industry. The norms that exist to regulate the quality of cold drinks are inadequate, leaving this "food" sector virtually unregulated.
So pampered is the lucrative soft drink sector that it is exempted from the provisions of industrial licensing under the Industries (Development and Regulation) Act, 1951.
A one-time licence from the ministry of food processing industries includes a no-objection certificate from the local government as well as the state pollution control board, and a water analysis report.
There are no environmental impact assessments or sitting regulations, so the industry's use of water is not regulated.