The problem of high pesticide levels starts with colas and extends
to all that we eat and drink. A follow-up study by Centre for Science
and Environment on pesticide content in 11 soft drink brands suggests
that little has changed since the earlier controversy on the subject
that stretched from February 2003 to November 2004.
The sample survey of 25 bottling plants in 12 cities concludes that
average pesticide residue, at 11.85 particles per billion, was 23
times higher than norms set by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS).
BIS norms have not been notified despite a Joint Parliamentary Committee
(JPC) probe into the issue between August 2003 and September 2004,
which confirmed CSE's findings. Why act against colas when everything
else is contaminated, one might ask.
This commonly posed query lets cola brands off the hook on several
counts. Cola manufacturers cannot blame the quality of groundwater,
as they sought to do two years ago, for their own lapses.
There are technologies in place for them to reduce pesticide content
— if households can take care of such impurities, what prevents companies
from doing the same?
Cola companies would rather not be on the wrong side of the law in
developed countries, given strong enforcement mechanisms and effectiveness
of civil society groups.
Their seemingly lax approach in markets such as India's smacks of
double standards. India might not have a notified set of norms, but
that should not deter manufacturers from being responsible.
If the brand image of cola makers suffers yet again, they have only
themselves to blame. Their dubious environment record on another front
— their plants contaminating soil and water — is another issue they
should address, before conscious consumers, in India and elsewhere,
upset their applecart.
However, the government should not restrict its focus to colas merely
because of their visibility, and ignore contamination in other substances.
The cola investigation in 2003 and 2004 brought to the fore the multiplicity
of agencies dealing with food contamination. The JPC recommended an
integrated food law and a single implementing authority, but there
has been little movement on that front.
The Prevention of Food Adulteration Act applies only to packaged food;
contaminants in unbranded products, such as vegetables and spices,
are anyone's guess.
BIS certification ought to become a more serious affair than it is
at present. For such mechanisms to work, India needs a vibrant consumer
movement to match its rise as an economic power.
Apart from the fact that Indian consumers deserve better, Brand India
cannot be seen as consuming and producing toxic stuff.
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