India Widens Ban on Coke and Pepsi
NEW DELHI — Two of the world’s largest multinational companies, Pepsi
and Coca Cola, today ratcheted up a long-running campaign in India
to prove their soft drinks are safe, as local governments widened
a partial ban on their products following a report by an environmental
group claiming the sodas contained high levels of pesticide.
The dispute, which first flared in 2003 after the same group accused
the companies of using pesticide-laced water, has stoked a fresh media
maelstrom here and fanned protests across several regions.
Cans of Coca-Cola were poured down the throats of donkeys in one protest
this weekend, while activists from regional political parties smashed
cola bottles made by both companies and attacked several shops in
Delhi where the drinks were on sale. Protesters in Calcutta burned
bottles of Coca-Cola.
On Friday, India’s Supreme Court demanded that Coca-Cola reveal its
secret recipe — guarded for the past 120 years — so that the allegations
of high pesticide levels could be verified with further tests.
Coca-Cola pulled out of India in 1977 after the government insisted
that it reveal the formula. It returned 16 years later. The controversy
highlights the challenges that many multinational companies face in
their overseas operations. Despite the huge popularity of the colas,
the two companies are often held up as symbols of Western cultural
The report by the New Delhi-based Center for Science and Environment
has been seized on by nationalist groups, as well as environmental
campaigners, who believe the companies and the government have not
done enough to reduce unacceptably high levels of pesticides in the
The western coastal state of Gujarat and the state of Madhya Pradesh,
in central India, banned the sale of the soft drinks in schools and
government offices, after tests on 11 products made by the two companies
showed high pesticide levels, up to 24 times the recommended limit.
Similar bans were announced by state governments in the northern states
of Rajasthan and Punjab last week. Lawmakers from the opposition Bharatiya
Janata Party called for a nationwide ban.
PepsiCo began a public relations offensive today, placing large advertisements
in many daily papers, promising: “Pepsi is one of the safest beverages
you can drink today.”
The company acknowledged pesticides were present in the ground water
in India and did find their way into food products. But, it said,
“compared with the permitted levels in tea and other food products,
pesticide levels in soft drinks are negligible.”
The watchdog group’s report, published last week, followed an earlier
study on pesticide levels in soft drinks, and concluded that those
levels remained unacceptably high. Its authors criticized the government
for failing to implement safety standards promised in the wake of
their earlier, critical 2003 report.
Pesticide residue was 24 times above limits set by the Bureau of Indian
Standards in 57 samples tested, the report said. In one bottle of
Coca-Cola bought in Calcutta, the level of the carcinogenic pesticide
Lindane exceeded the bureau’s standards by 140 times.
“This is clearly unacceptable as we know that pesticides are tiny
toxins and impact our bodies over time,” Sunita Narain, the group’s
How the pesticides enter the drinks remains unclear. Indian farmers
have used pesticides intensively for decades and there are detectable
quantities of such chemicals in the ground water, which enter many
food products on sale. While India has introduced guidelines for acceptable
levels of pesticides for most products, it has yet to implement legislation
regulating the soft drink industry.
Soft drink manufacturers are not currently obliged to test their finished
products for the presence of contaminants, but they do have to check
the quality of the water going into the drink to ensure that trace
elements of agricultural chemicals have been removed.
Proposed standards for a final product test have been agreed upon
by a parliamentary committee with the bureau.
“We know that the companies are strongly opposed to this standard
as it will bring them under the ambit of regulators,” the watchdog
Through the Indian Soft Drinks Manufacturers Association, both companies
issued a short joint statement which declared that customer safety
was paramount, and added: “The soft drinks manufactured in India comply
with stringent international norms and all applicable national regulations.’’
“This study is not targeted at the soft drinks company. We want the
government to act on its commitment to regulate the soft drinks industry,”
Ms. Narain of the watchdog group said.
India’s health minister, Anbumani Ramadoss, was due to make a statement
in Parliament today on the issue, but failed to appear.
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