The 13th meeting of the fad 14 bis 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.
"In jpc'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?