Withdrawal symptom

Thursday 15 April 2004

A malaise called non-regulation

-- COCA COLA'S British operation has withdrawn 500,000 bottles of Dasani water from the market, after bromate levels higher than the standard were detected in the product. Bromate is a derivative of bromide, and increases cancer risk over long-term exposure. Dasani was launched in UK in December last year, and had a controversy-ridden existence. Consumers were shocked to know that the cola giant was selling 'purified' tap water, at a price 30 times higher than that of London tap water!

Gurus of public relations will in future undoubtedly cite this withdrawal as a sign of Coca Cola's corporate social responsibility. But it is absolutely clear that the 'bromate' issue saved the company from the embarrasement of taking the consumers for a ride with marked-up tap water. It is interesting to note that the safety limit of bromate at 10 parts per billion (ppb) in UK is the same for tap water and bottled water. The riddle of how bottled water made by purifying tap water had higher level of bromate (detected upto 25 ppb) than that of the raw material is also answered in the corporate's press release. Its 'sound science'. The bromate is a health bonus; it came from effort to supply the consumer the required level of calcium. The New York Times has reported clearly that samples checked before product launch maintained required level of bromate. A familiar story everywhere: the quality of a product is managed by advertisement once licences are obtained.

But there is one difference. The same company did not recall their products from the market after the Centre for Science and Environment reported, last August, high levels of pesticide residue (a finding now ratified by a Joint Parliamentary Committee probe) in their products. Our lawmakers have withdrawn from governance: we refuse to make well-defined standards for products with major public health implications. Coca-Cola in UK clearly violated a well-defined legal limit for bromate in bottled water. It had to withdraw. Here, they tom-tom their products as the cleanest best. It is a perfect claim, there are no standard. But our law-makers fail to realise that this shows that companies have very little respect for them and in their business through ad-hoc deals.

The difference between 'developing' and 'developed' is not only about a chair in the United Nations Security Council. 'Developed' means a civilised way of governing people's lives. To this, globalisation has added the need for a strong state. In its absence, our only luxury is to imagine how these companies may have been conducting business here, without any legally binding standards for their products, and be alarmed.

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