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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.