Political Fizzle

Pressure is now mounting on Coca-Cola and PepsiCo even as two more Indian states banned the sale of their soft drinks at government-run schools and colleges amid allegations they contain high levels of pesticides.  The states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh joined five other states in banning the sale of Coke, Pepsi, Sprite and other soft drinks made by the Indian subsidiaries of Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo Inc.  The moves follow claims last week by a New Delhi-based research body that the soft drinks have higher levels of pesticides than are allowed by national authorities. However, both Coca-Cola and PepsiCo insist their drinks are safe.  

While the New Delhi based Center for Science and Environment (CSE) points that all soft drinks sold in India contain high levels of pesticides, it is for obvious reasons that the focus is on Coca-Cola and PepsiCo because the two together account for nearly 80 percent of India’s US$2 billion-plus soft drink market. If CSE, which has done some credible work in the field of health and environment, has come out with such a finding, and if Coca-Cola India and PepsiCo India are both saying that they comply with stringent international norms and all applicable national regulations, what then is the issue? Or where does the problem lie and who is to be blamed. 

The problem with the entire cola-pesticide issue is that it is turning out into a firefighting exercise dictated by ideological posturing. The political Left with its known anti-US and anti-globalization tirade has already pushed the button to get as much political mileage out of the current debate. The political Right likewise is already beginning to mount the swadeshi band wagon to eulogize about everything healthy and safe about homegrown products. It is not to say that there is no validity in these standpoints. But whether it is swadeshi, Chinese, Italian or American product, at the end of the day the basis for their acceptance in the market and consumption thereof has to be public health and safety. And it is precisely this larger issue of public health, which is being ignored in this entire melodrama. Therefore pushing the panic button on Coke and Pepsi is jumping the gun too soon.

The other aspect that should engage public debate is on safety regulations. It could be that there does exist pesticide in cola drinks as unearthed by CSE. But it could also be that the cola companies are continuing their daily production because the government or the department concern are not putting in more stringent measures to be really pushing cola companies into greater safety regulations. Further, the problem of pesticide is not confined to colas alone. The predicament with pesticide residue in food products in India is that it mainly percolates from fruit and agriculture crops wherein pesticides are used to kill pests. As such even milk and vegetables are known to contain higher level of pesticides.

At the end, the initiative for public health safety has to come from the government and if there is pesticide content in what the CSE has found in its study, then it is now the duty of the Bureau of Indian Standards to do a recheck on its safety norms and ensure that the findings of the CSE is properly incorporated while drawing up newer and stringent measures for food safety and to ensure that public health is not compromised under any circumstance. As in this particular issue, the concern over pesticide is a genuine one but the solution does not lie in banning Coke and Pepsi alone.