The street fight
Our world changed a little when we published the study on pesticide residues in soft drinks. In the work we do, fights go with the territory. We need to challenge institutions -- government and private -- in the public interest. What we had not anticipated, however, was the sheer power and the virulence of the attack. The fact is that the two companies affected -- Coca-Cola and PepsiCo -- were incidental to our story on pesticide contamination and the need for food standards to regulate safety. The fact that two us multinationals were involved was a mere coincidence. But not for them.
The first attack was on our laboratory -- they questioned the data analysis, our capabilities, our equipment and then as it got nastier, they resorted to personalised attacks on us and our integrity. Their favourite ploy was to dismiss us as a pawn in a conspiracy hatched by Europe (because we get funds from multilateral and bilateral agencies) to destroy the good name of us companies. But this was not all. We heard rumours of phone calls from Colin Powell, then us secretary of state, to the prime minister's office. We heard of Washington DC-based high-priced lawyers (lobbyists) flying down to cajole the powers here. We heard of intense activity in corridors in which we have no place.
We sensed the tables had turned against us. We knew when we had visits from the grey-clad men from the Intelligence Bureau to check on us. We knew when we were asked to submit to the government data on 20 years of accounts, 20 years of our funding data, 20 years of detail on every staff member who has worked with us, along with their addresses. The strategy, we knew, was to trip us -- somehow. The final straw came when the swadeshi -oriented health minister Sushma Swaraj of the National Democratic Alliance government took their side. We say this not because of the study she ordered to check our data, not because of her statement in parliament regarding the study of two scientific institutions and the variation in data gathered by them and us. We say this because she carefully crafted her speech to sneak in the phrase "within safety limit". In other words, the drinks were safe. A clean chit had been given.
We also say this because she drafted the terms of reference of the Joint Parliamentary Committee (jpc) that investigated the matter to turn it into an enquiry against us. The 15-member jpc was to investigate if the "recent findings of the Centre for Science and Environment (cse) regarding pesticide residues in soft drinks are correct or not". In other words, we were in the dock, not the cola companies. The rest is history. The jpc was created to bury us, but it ended up vindicating our study. It endorsed our position that the country needed health-based standards for food and water security (see 'Democracy must be worked at', Down To Earth, February 29, 2004).
What after that?
We Indians are a cynical lot. Perhaps we have reason to be. We believe that little will be done, nothing will really improve and that the rich and powerful will get away with murder (in a manner of speaking). It is not all that wrong as well. Take the cola-pesticide wars. The story may have inspired a Bollywood movie -- Corporate -- but it has done little else. Even as the jpc was deliberating on its report, the two cola giants launched perhaps the biggest ad blitz in the country. Top stars, from Aamir Khan to Shahrukh Khan, were hired to reassure us that the drinks were safe. They mocked our study. They derided our message of safety. They danced and sang to seduce us to go back to colas. But that is their job. They are paid actors. The problem was that the regulator -- the government -- abdicated its role.
Three years have passed since the day we released our study. The market for colas, we are told, has recovered from the pesticide-controversy blip. The government of the day is favourably inclined towards promoting this habit. In this year's budget, an excise duty cut has made the cola giants more profitable. The market is looking up. We have no complaints.
But where we have a bone to pick is that even as the drinks are back in our homes, nothing has been done to implement the recommendations of the jpc. The standards that needed to be set to regulate their safety have been lost in committees or blocked by powerful interests in the government. The cola-pesticide issue has become one more action-not-taken story.
But battles, as we said, go with our territory. We are dogs with a bone -- we won't give up. The reason is not egoism or arrogance. The reason is simple: we believe in this nation's democracy. For the past three years, we have worked within the system to discuss and formulate safety standards for these products. We have worked with the process. We have found it works. We found in this process that the integrity of top scientists could not be compromised. But we also found that the process could easily be manipulated by the bureaucracy.
This is why we are taking this issue back to you. We are releasing the study -- Coke-Pepsi-Pesticide ii -- so that you who are wooed by the companies can exercise your choice.
Our reason is simple: if soft drinks contain a cocktail of pesticides above stipulated standard, they are unsafe. The companies say there are no stipulated standards. The reason is simple: they don't allow standards to be formulated. The companies say milk and vegetables have more pesticides than colas. But milk and vegetables also have nutrition. They give us something in this poison-nutrition trade-off. We get nothing with colas. Just pesticides. Harmful and deadly.
As we write this, we don't know how we will be attacked this time. We are sure, given past experience, that it will be vituperative and powerful.
We don't know if we will survive. But we know that the issues we are concerned with will gain strength. They are too important to be knocked around by a few companies, even if they are the world's most powerful ones. These issues concern our bodies. Our health.
On March 29, 2006, the Drinks and Carbonated Beverages Sectional Committee or FAD 14 of the Bureau of Indian Standards (bis
) was meeting in New Delhi. For the past 20-odd meetings, held over the past three years, the committee had deliberated on the standards for carbonated beverages. When it last met in October 2005, at the Defence Food Research Laboratory, Mysore, the committee had finalised standards. At the March meeting, the committee was asked to re-confirm its decision. Even as the meeting began early morning, a letter was presented to the committee. The letter, dated March 29, 2006 -- the date of the meeting -- written by the secretary of the Union ministry of health and family welfare, to the secretary of the Union ministry of consumer affairs, asked bis to defer setting standards.The health secretary wanted this done because he said that a national-level expert committee on pesticide residues in sugar was to meet shortly to discuss its interim report. It also wanted more data to be collected on other parameters -- caffeine, ph -- before standards could be set. What he did not say was that this committee had been set up after the jpc report over two years ago and that it was still only considering preliminary findings and that his ministry had not set a time period to finalise standards.
Perhaps not too oddly, this letter, which parroted the position of industry, was timed so strategically. Its value to the attempts of soft drink majors to stall standards was immense. But what was bizarre was that the letter was dated March 29, which meant that the health secretary must have dispatched it on the day of the standard-setting meeting, and with amazing speed it cut through all government channels to reach the desk of the secretary, consumer affairs, to be routed to the bis headquarters some 5-6 km away. And completely inexplicable was the soft drink companies' knowledge about not just the existence but also the contents of the letter. But then the stakes were high.
For the past three years, soft drink companies and their industry associations had fought tooth and nail against setting up a final product standard. In August 2003, when cse had released its findings on pesticide residues in soft drinks, it had made one fact clear there were no standards for the quantity of pesticides allowed in the soft drinks and that these products worked outside the ambit of the regulators. The jpc endorsed cse's scientific analysis and directed that standards should be set. The objective was clear to set final standards and to regulate the product for public health.
Since then, two processes have been underway. One was driven by the health ministry. In 2004, it had set standards for the quality of water which would be used in the manufacture of soft drinks. But this did not address the quality of the final product. Worse, it left open the issue of how the inspectors would enforce this standard since it would require checking not the soft drink, but the water used to manufacture the beverage in each plant.
In this process, the final product standard, deliberated since February 2004, remained mired within committees and their sub-committees. In early 2004, the ministry's central committee on food standards agreed to refer the matter to its pesticide residue sub-committee, which would examine the pesticide content in sugar, the other constituent of soft drinks. In October 2004, the sub-committee decided to hand over this decision to an expert committee. The expert committee, in turn, decided to collect sugar samples from different parts of the country to analyse pesticide content. Ministry officials say the report, due in April 2006, is only a pilot study and will be used for more detailed analysis and study. The health ministry has no time frame for setting the final standard.
The second process is driven by bis, an autonomous institution under the department of consumer affairs, mandated to set and review standards for products in the country. bis had an existing voluntary standard for carbonated beverages, which was up for its mandatory five-year review. This standard did not regulate pesticide residues. Directed by jpc, bis's standard-setting committee decided to work on reviewing and finalising the standard, taking into account new health imperatives. The committee included representatives of all interested parties -- cola majors, the bottled water industry, industry associations, food and nutrition scientists, and consumer and environmental groups. It had, after months of deliberation, come to the point of finalising the standard, which was demanded by consumer and environmental groups and opposed by soft drink companies. The opposition was out in the open. They were determined to make sure the committee did not set the standard, using every possible ruse to prevaricate and delay. The game was nearing touchdown.
Soft drinks contain two key constituents -- roughly 89 per cent water and 10 per cent sugar. The rest of the 1 per cent is made up of a secret ingredient and carbon dioxide. This is what the companies told jpc
. With standards for water set, the question to resolve was the amount of pesticide residues contributed by sugar, so that the final product standard could be set. This issue was brought to jpc
where the health ministry (now devising lengthy studies) had deposed that "the pesticide residue in sugar and the quantity of sugar used in soft drinks is so small that it is not likely to increase the pesticide residue in the final product". Soft drink companies also told jpc
in written submissions that they had a fool-proof system of procuring high-quality sugar and a system to treat the sugar syrup by a hot carbon process during which pesticide residues are eliminated. jpc
asked them to submit data, which they did. This data showed little presence of pesticides in sugar. It was for two samples tested by the Hyderabad-based vimta
Labs in October 2003. On the basis of this evidence, jpc
asked for the final product standard to be formulated.
But cola companies made veiled threats of importing sugar if the final product standard was pursued. The sugar issue came to bis
. In July 2004, both PepsiCo and Coca-Cola wrote to top officials of the department of consumer affairs complaining against bis
officials. They claimed they had proof that "confirms the presence of pesticide residues in sugar available in India" and wanted this to be taken into account. The standards committee, when it met next, asked the companies to submit their evidence. The companies submitted the data for the same two samples it had given to jpc
many months ago.
A careful scrutiny of this data showed that in all samples pesticides were below the 1 part per billion (ppb) level. More data was called for. Two more sugar sample data was given by companies to the committee. But the analysis was the same: tests done by the Netherlands-based tno
labs in February 2004 and the London-based Central Analytical Lab, earlier in September 2003, detected negligible pesticide residues. But the companies were still not satisfied. More data was called for. In early 2005, the Hyderabad-based National Institute of Nutrition submitted data on pesticide residues in sugar. Analysis of 11 samples showed no presence of pesticide in sugar.
But this was not sufficient. Even more tests were called for. In October 2005, vimta
Labs submitted data for 135 samples, which they tested for 50 pesticides. Their analysis revealed the contribution of sugar to the pesticide content in the final soft drink was well below the draft standard of 0.1 ppb for individual pesticide and 0.5 ppb for total pesticides.
It was further pointed out that these tests were done on raw sugar. Both PepsiCo and Coca-Cola had submitted to jpc
that they treated sugar through a hot carbon process, which reduced the pesticide content further. Based on this information, the committee decided to finalise the standard. It agreed that the standard for pesticide residues in water should be mandated for the final product.
Their final product cannot be tested because it has a complex matrix. They say standards are never set for the final product, only the raw material
Water and sugar make up soft drinks, which is hardly complex. Globally, governments test routinely for contaminants at sub-ppb levels for all products sold to consumers -- from baby food to tinned food. In fact, governments test the same soft drinks for pesticide residues in different countries. In India, government laboratories tested soft drinks to check their pesticide residues. Ironically, the two soft drink majors also tested their product to prove their safety. One company used the results of the London-based laboratory to give itself a clean chit. How do the companies know that their product is 'safe' if it cannot be tested?
Top analytical chemists in the country discussed this issue in the bis
committee. Their unanimous view was that methods to test soft drinks exist and that, after the standard was finalised, bis
would prepare the protocol for measurement to be used by all laboratories.
Industry, not just soft drink companies, does not want standards for the final product. They believe that standards should be set only for constituents -- water and the sugar, not the beverage. They say pesticide standards for final products, which are multi-ingredient, cannot be done. They assert it is not done anywhere in the world. But the facts are different. Governments have pesticide residue standards for cereal-based food and infant food, for butter, for cheese and even ice-cream. Governments are learning they need to work at both ends -- standardise maximum residue levels allowed on the raw materials as well as on the manufactured foods, so that industrial units can adopt technologies for cleaning up contaminants.
The principle for setting standards is obvious: the pesticide residue allowances of different ingredients, proportional to their presence in the product, are added to make a final product standard.
In other words, 89 per cent of the pesticide residue water standard is added to 10 per cent of the pesticide residues contributed through sugar. In the final bis
standard, the data on pesticide residues from sugar, presented by the companies, showed that this contribution would be negligible and so, the water standard for pesticide residues, which is 89 per cent of the product, was adopted.
Action not taken
meeting of the fad
committee was in session. The letter of the health secretary had been tabled. Discussion was heated. Finally, the meeting decided to re-confirm the standard for carbonated beverages. The standard was ready for notification.
But then, mysteriously, things began to happen. The bis
website noted in its progress of work that the standard (is
2346) "has been finalised but not yet ready under print". In other words, finalised but not been notified. A few weeks later, even this mention was erased. bis
officials maintained a stony silence. Investigations by Down To Earth
point to a letter written by officials of the department of consumer affairs to the director-general of bis
questioning why the standard was set in "such a rush". The letter questioned why bis
was setting the standard when the health ministry had raised objections. It conveyed its unhappiness about the way the matter had been handled by the bureau and wanted it to stop its work on setting the standard.
In other words the standard, set after over 20 meetings, discussed by key experts concerned with food and nutrition and endorsed by consumer and environmental groups, was to be dropped. All because soft drink companies (and the health ministry) wanted it so. Ironically, the final nail in the coffin of the health-based standard came from the department of consumer affairs -- mandated to protect the people's interest. Even more ironically, the minister of consumer affairs happened to be the chairperson of the jpc
that had directed the government to set the standards in the first place. "The reason that other countries have not fixed such limits should not dissuade our lawmakers in attempting to do so, particularly when vulnerable sections of our population who are young and constitute a vast national asset consume soft drinks.
's view, therefore, it is prudent to seek complete freedom from pesticide residues in sweetened aerated waters. 'Unsafe even if trace' should be the eventual goal", was the verdict.
A Rajasthan High Court order had directed that while the issue of what was safe and not safe was debated, "consumers should be given the entire information about the contents of the beverages for exercising informed choice". The court directed PepsiCo and Coca-Cola and all other manufacturers of carbonated beverages and soft drinks to disclose the composition and contents of their products, including the presence, if any, of pesticides and chemicals, on the bottle, package or container, as the case may be. But the order has not been implemented.
The Planning Commission homepage includes on it a link to the report of the us-India ceo Forum. The members of the group included the head of PepsiCo, so it is no surprise that carbonated beverages got special mention. The government was directed to eliminate policies such as the discriminatory special excise duty on carbonated drinks (which it promptly complied with). It was also directed to "deflect unreasonable allegations made against the beverage industry by establishing internationally accepted, science-based safety standards for the entire food and beverage sector".
But good science is clearly a tool for the unwilling. The companies do not want the standard. They will say that it is not "science-based". The bis standard-setting process includes top scientists and is used to set standards for all products. The process has not been compromised. But industry's interests may have been. Now the ball is in the government's court. The ball is also in the court of companies. Have they cleaned up their act? Are their products now safe?
The Centre for Science and Environment's Pollution Monitoring Laboratory tested 57 soft drink samples of 11 soft drinks brands. Journalists and researchers travelling for stories collected samples from different states and cities of India -- bought bottles from Burnihat in Meghalaya, Bharuch in Gujarat, Palakkad in Kerala to Jalandhar in Punjab. Unlike the 2003 pesticide in soft drink study, when 36 samples from Delhi were procured, these samples are from 25 different soft drink manufacturing plants spread over 12 states
Why still unsafe?
Companies say that pesticides in their drinks are at sub-ppb levels. They say this because they want you to believe that their products are safe.
Pesticides are tiny toxins. But toxicity is not defined in terms of size in absolute terms. It is defined in terms of the extent of our exposure to pesticides through different sources and how much we are allowed each day, when we eat or drink.
Toxicity, then, is not merely about large numbers. Exposure to pesticides in small -- even tiny -- doses over time leads to chronic health effects. Many pesticides have an immunosuppressive effect: they trigger diseases like cancer and asthma. There are pesticides that are persistent: they build up in our bodies and cause diseases over time. For instance, lindane, a persistent organochlorine pesticide, detected in all soft drink samples, is a potent carcinogen. Pesticide companies market 'non-persistent' organophosphorous pesticides.But recent scientific evidence indicts this category of toxins as deadly. Chlorpyrifos, an organophosphate pesticide, is a suspected neuroteratogen. Pregnant women exposed to tiny amounts of chlorpyrifos have been found to give birth to babies with reduced weight and head circumference. This pesticide was found in all drinks we tested.
Safe because others are more unsafe
Cola companies say they are safe because milk, apples and vegetables have more pesticides. But this is twisting science.
They miss the point that there is a trade-off in which we ingest pesticides even as we need nutrition. Pesticide safety is all about ensuring that our total exposure -- through the food we eat and water we drink -- is kept within the threshold of safety. This threshold, defined in terms of the total pesticide quota we are allowed each day, is called acceptable daily intake (adi). Based on the toxicity of a pesticide, the acceptable dose will differ. The dose will also differ on the basis of weight and age. So, it may be 'safe' to ingest 0.3 mg of lindane for an adult weighing 60 kg, but a child weighing 10 kg is only allowed 0.05 mg of lindane a day, for instance.
This threshold of safety, or the daily quota of pesticide, is spread over various food commodities that people normally eat. The amount of pesticide allowed in each food item consumed is called the maximum residue limit (mrl). MRLs are the standard for regulating pesticide in food.
Now, nowhere in the world are soft drinks included as an essential part of people's diet in the pesticide threshold calculation, simply because they do not have nutritional value and, therefore, are not part of the 'poison-nutrition' trade-off. So, if any pesticide residues are allowed in soft drinks, then the entire pesticide quota calculations have to be redone in a way that our total exposure still remains within the adi. In other words, some essential food item will have to be thrown out of our diet basket. We will have to substitute soft drinks with, say, milk or apples, fruit juices or cereals. Given that the pesticide exposure of Indians already exceeds the adi many times (see 'A refreshing guide to food safety', Down To Earth, December 31, 2003), we literally have no space in our food-poison trade-off for non-essential and non-nutritive intake. Therefore, while fruit juices, which have a nutritive value, can be assigned a pesticide quota, soft drinks cannot, because they have no nutritive value. Fruit juices or fruits are part of the nutrition-poison trade-off. They are fitted into our diets.
Safe because they meet standards that don't exist
This is the argument trotted out by soft drink companies. The fact is that safety is about setting and adhering to standards for pesticide residue in food products. Therefore, any contaminant that exceeds the standard makes the product unsafe. But in the case of soft drinks, the final product standards for the quantity of pesticides allowed have not been notified. They have not been notified because companies are fighting these standards tooth and nail. But if the final (not notified) standards are considered, these products are unsafe because the pesticide residues exceed the safety limit many times.
The bottom line is that these are definitely unsafe. No government or Aamir Khan can give them a certificate of safety. Unless they are acting.