India: The Colas caught for now, but a longer [pesticide] shadow looms Print E-mail
 Chennai -- Volume 23 - Issue 16: : August 12, 2006 - August 25, 2006
Colas cornered

A report revealing dangerous levels of pesticides in Coca-Cola and Pepsi prompts State governments to ban the sales of these soft drinks.

SHORN of its customary gloss, glamour and celebrity promoters, the latest Pepsi advertisement in leading papers across the country is driving home just one message, "Pepsi is one of the safest beverages you can drink today." The motivation behind this unusually austere advertisement is a report published by the Delhi-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), which found a "cocktail of between three to five different pesticides" in samples of Pepsi, Coca-Cola, and the entire range of aerated water products sold by the two companies. The average residue levels were 24 times European Union (E.U.) standards for bottled water. The report comes three years after a similar report by the same organisation, titled Colanisation's Dirty Dozen, which first indicated the presence of trace amounts of pesticides in soft drinks.

While Pepsi has issued advertisements refuting the findings of the report, representatives of Coca Cola told Frontline that they would issue a "comprehensive response" in the coming week.

In the meantime, the CSE report has kicked up a minor political storm; Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh have banned the sale of soft drinks in all educational institutions and government offices. The Punjab Assembly has banned their sales on its premises, the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) in Kerala hasbanned production and sale in the State, and the State wing of the Communist Party of India (CPI) in Tamil Nadu has demanded that Pepsi and Coke be expelled from India. In a statement to the Lok Sabha, Union Minister for Health and Family Welfare Anbumani Ramadoss said that his Ministry was "committed to protecting the health of consumers", and had commissioned a pilot study to determine appropriate standards for the carbonated drinks industry.

The laboratory report published on the CSE website states that 57 samples of 11 soft drink brands were analysed for 15 organochloride and 13 organophosphorus pesticides including Lindane, Heptachlor, DDT, Chlorpyrifos and Malathion. Believed to affect the liver, kidney, and neural and immune systems, Lindane was the most commonly found pesticide, present in 100 per cent of the samples. The minimum concentration of Lindane detected was in Pepsi Caffechino at 1.48 parts per billion (ppb), nearly 15 times the proposed Indian norms for individual pesticides in soft drinks, while the maximum concentration was detected in a Coca-Cola sample in Kolkata at 14.06 ppb, 140 times the proposed standard.

The results of the CSE report have raised several important questions. Where have the pesticides come from? How are the pesticide levels so high? And crucially, how are pesticide levels formulated?

A protest against soft drinks in Amritsar on August 5 [NARINDER NANU/AFP]
Most colas consist of approximately 90 per cent water, 8 per cent sugar, and 2 per cent flavouring. While groundwater drawn from borewells is considered to be the chief culprit, Chandra Bhushan, associate director of the CSE, says that both companies already sell bottled water that is well within standards. "If they can purify water for their bottled water products, they probably can do they same for aerated water," he says. Sugar too has cleared most pesticide residue tests. This leaves the secret recipe - a jealously guarded commercial secret that the Cola companies have refused to share. It is known that the recipes contain high amounts of caffeine, a natural product that could contain high amounts of pesticide. Taking notice of this view, the Supreme Court on August 4, 2006 directed Coca-Cola and Pepsi to reveal their recipes for the first time in 120 years.

However, at present the court is powerless to rule on the issue. In India, the absence of notified standards has made regulation of the soft drink industry impossible. In spite of CSE's report, Coca Cola and Pepsi can legitimately claim to be on the right side of the law. The presence of pesticides and insecticides in food is regulated under the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, 1954, but does not regulate bottled water or beverages. Regulations for the bottled water industry were notified in 2004 after a 2003 report by the CSE that found pesticides in bottled water. The government of India adopted E.U. standards for bottled water at 0.1 ppb for single residues and 0.5 ppb for multiple residues. New regulations for carbonated soft drinks issued by the Health Ministry in the same year mandated that water used by soft drink companies as an input for their products must meet bottling water standards. However, the Ministry did not notify standards for the final products. Many people pointed out that the enforcement and regulation of standards for inputs was impractical. Thus the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS), along with several top scientists, the CSE and representatives of both Cola companies, were charged with formulating end-product standards for the soft drink industry.

"These standards were formulated and finalised at 0.1 ppb for individual pesticide residues and 0.5 for total pesticide residue, but were scuttled at the last minute by the Health Ministry under pressure from the soft drinks industry," said Chandra Bhushan. As evidence, Bhushan cites a letter (published on the CSE website) written by the Secretary of the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare to the Union Ministry of Consumer Affairs on March 29, 2006 - the day that the formulated standards were to be finalised. The letter asked the BIS to defer a decision on end-product standards as a national-level expert committee on pesticide residues in sugar was to meet to discuss its report. "Thus, after testing 1,200 samples for pH, 50 samples for caffeine content, close to 300 samples of sugar and 20 meetings over 3 years, the standards were put off by one letter on the last day."

The three-way battle between the CSE, the Health Ministry and the Cola companies is primarily centred on what constitutes a "good standard". On the face of it, the setting of standards seems to represent the epitome of empirical scientific research. However, it is also a deeply political and negotiated process. While the World Health Organisation (WHO) has published common global standards for many years, most countries have modified these to suit their own populations. Ravi Aggarwal of Toxics Link, an NGO that works on industry regulations and standards, said, "A standard is a negotiated figure arrived at on the basis of the best acceptable technology in relation to an acceptable cost." That cost is monetary and social and determines the idea of an "acceptable risk". Thus, the United States, E.U., and Australia and New Zealand have negotiated standards that are significantly more stringent than WHO standards.

The starting point for standards formulation is the pragmatic acceptance that there is a trade-off between toxicity and nutrition. While pesticides are known to be lethal and toxic compounds, they also play a crucial role in improving yields by killing pests. The first step is the calculation of an Acceptable Daily Intake, or ADI. An ADI is the amount of a particular pesticide that a human being of a particular body weight can consume on a daily basis for the rest of his or her life without adverse effects. It is calculated by testing pesticides on animals, and calibrating the sensitivity for humans.

Students demand a ban on the sale of soft drinks in school and college cafeterias, at a protest in Ahmedabad [AJIT SOLANKI/AP]
The second component of a standards regime is a draft Maximum Residue Level (MRL), which is defined for a particular crop for an individual pesticide, and gives an indication of the acceptable amount of pesticide in the crop. It is arrived at by studying crop samples and determining the pesticide residue. This is then multiplied by the amount of the food item consumed daily (obtained from dietary data) to arrive at the Theoretical Daily Intake (TDI). The TDI is then compared with the ADI. As long as the TDI is below the ADI, the MRL can be considered to be a "good standard." Thus, a population's exposure to pesticide is measured by considering a standard consumption basket based on dietary patterns, multiplied by the corresponding MRLs of each component of the basket.

However, as can be seen, a good standard is dependent on both what a society deems "acceptable" in terms of pesticide intake and on the dietary patterns of a given population. As a CSE report points out, "the Joint Meetings on Pesticide Residues (an autonomous body associated with the WHO) in 1999 set an ADI for chlorpyrifos at 0.01 mg/kg of bodyweight. That for the U.S. EPA [Environmental Protection Agency], set in the same year, is 100 times lower: 0.0001 mg/kg of body weight. ADI set by the Food Standards Australia and New Zealand, set a decade before, is 30 times lower: 0.003 mg/kg of body weight." Thus, the same chemical compound has three different acceptable values for three different agencies.

At present, the proposed BIS norms for soft drinks are on a par with E.U. norms for bottled water. While the stringency of these norms must be applauded, their applicability in a country like India must be questioned. The argument put forward by the CSE and its supporters has been that if the Cola companies can match E.U. standards in Europe, why they cannot do the same in India.

A senior scientist working at a reputed government laboratory commented that, "pesticides are better managed in Europe than in India. Most of the raw materials have far less residual pesticide than those in India." And this is the crux of the debate. Colas form a minor part of the Indian diet, and even at the concentrations detected by the CSE, are unlikely to cause major pesticide-related health complications unless the consumption increases many fold. While Coca-Cola and Pepsi are useful ideologically-charged targets for a number of reasons that could be valid, they are on the fringes of the pesticide debate.

The bigger story is India's unregulated use of pesticides in general, and their seepage into fresh fruits, vegetables, foodgrains, tea, milk and meat. A standards regime makes sense only when it is uniform and universal. Hence excessively stringent regulations on one commodity and lax regulations on another are unlikely to improve public health as a whole. Unfortunately, standards debates tend to focus on how contaminated raw materials are cleaned up, and not on how the raw materials were contaminated in the first place. Thus, stringent standards should be complemented by a clearly thought-out toxin management policy. The Colas have been caught for now, but a longer shadow looms.