The Joy of Toxic Cola
Miranda Kennedy, AlterNet
September 5, 2003
Coca-Cola isn't keeping it real in India. Neither is its fierce rival, Pepsi.
America's most beloved brands are facing a firestorm of criticism for
dangerously high levels of pesticide residues in their locally-made sodas.
The well-respected research group, the Center for Science and Environment (CSE)
in New Delhi, found traces of lindane, malathion, chlorpyrifos, and even the
banned DDT in Indian-bottled Pepsi and Coca-Cola drinks. CSE says pesticide
levels in the Indian samples are respectively 36 and 30 times higher than EU
safety standards. And not surprisingly, when the same group tested bottles sold
in the U.S., they were pesticide-free.
When the toxic-cola report hit the Indian papers, Hindu nationalist activists
smashed Coke and Pepsi bottles in the streets and tore down advertising
billboards. Members of Indian parliament immediately ordered a ban on the
products in their canteen, and even threatened to revoke Coke and Pepsis
licenses if the claims were verified.
Universities across the country stopped supplying the sodas, while bottling
plants were sealed off in some states.
Coke, like many other multinationals, has had a rocky relationship with the
Indian government. In the late 1970s, the government kicked the company out of
the country for refusing to locally manufacture its secret syrup. In 1993, Coke
reentered the Indian market on the heels of its rival Pepsi with a vengeance. Of
the 200 countries where the drink is sold worldwide, India now has the fastest
Today, the Atlanta-headquartered Coca-Cola and New York-based PepsiCo enjoy an
absolute duopoly in the Indian soft drinks market. Together they own all the
twelve brands of sodas tested by CSE. So it is no wonder that the two companies,
despite their fierce rivalry, immediately closed ranks and threatened legal
action against CSE. Nor was it surprising when the U.S. embassy in New Delhi
spoke out in defense of the two American companies, describing them in the media
as highly reputable and responsible firms.
To settle the controversy, the Indian government decided to expedite its own
tests of the products, even as the companies panicked about falling sales.
The verdict released last week was mixed, but not lethal for the U.S.
multinationals. The Indian health minister told parliament that while the
government also found pesticide residues in the soft drinks, the levels fell
within national standards for packaged drinking water and were, therefore, safe
Both Pepsi and Coke immediately ramped up a public relations campaign aimed at
wooing back the Indian public. They held a joint press conference, where the
Indian CEOs of the local subsidiary posed for cameras clutching bottles of their
respective brands. Pepsi placed ads in the national papers advising consumers,
"refresh your faith and don't hold back your tastebuds." Soft drink vendors hung
up posters proclaiming "Coca-Cola refreshes you with world-class and safe
products in India."
Not quite. "The reason we found differences between U.S. and Indian products,"
explains Sunita Narain, head of CSE, "is because these industries are regulated
in the U.S. but not in India.
The companies may say we have global standards, but this is not true. There are
no global standards." Most countries, including the U.S., do not have standards
for soft drinks. While the companies test individual ingredients for toxics
according to global standards, they follow local standards for the main
ingredient of the bottled drinks: water.
In the U.S. and European Union, water used in soft drinks and bottled water is
stringently monitored. Indian water standards, however, are shockingly low.
The water is only required to be "potable," and the meaning of that word is not
legally defined. Ground water processing is completely unregulated, and the two
companies have not voluntarily set any standards for their products.
While Coke and Pepsi may have emerged relatively unscathed from the cola wars,
the political battle is far from over. The health ministers announcement caused
a furor in parliament, with MPs accusing the Hindu nationalist BJP government of
being paid off by Coke and Pepsi. The presence of multinational companies
remains a sensitive subject in India. And Coca-Cola's other practices are not
likely to help its cause.
The largest Coca-Cola plant in India has also been accused of putting thousands
of farmers out of work by draining the water that feeds their wells and
poisoning the land with waste sludge.
The plant in the southern state of Kerala, which uses 1 million liters of water
a day, has been the target of protests from the local village council that is
calling for its closure.
Furthermore, the state's Pollution Control Board recently found cadmium at toxic
levels in sludge samples from the plant. The plant has been distributing this
sludge as "organic fertilizer" to local farmers. The pollution board asked Coke
to stop emitting sludge from the factory, but the company continues to claim
their waste makes a good "soil conditioner."
Environmental groups have long complained that giants like Coke and Pepsi
callously disregard public well-being. Sunita Narain of CSE says she targeted
the Indian government rather than Coca-Cola or Pepsi simply because any efforts
to control and regulate multinationals have always failed. She hopes the
government will discover their regulatory backbone and force multinationals to
comply with tighter norms. But Ravi Agarwal, director of Toxics Link in Delhi,
says the onus falls squarely on the companies, irrespective of local standards:
"It is the governments responsibility to provide essential foods, but Coke and
Pepsi are brands that go beyond food value. They are responsible for upholding
their own international standards."
Apart from regulation, consumer boycotts are often the best check on corporate
misconduct, but it isn't clear whether the bad publicity will affect sales.
Kailash, whose small bakery in New Delhi is bright with blue Pepsi signs, says
he is still feeling the effects. "Sales have gone down, way down," he sighs. He
has stopped stocking glass bottles, the most popular way to buy cola in India.
"If the doctor tells you, 'you are going to die,' you are scared," he says,
"Then when the doctor tells you, now you are okay, do you just turn around and
believe him?" Others like Gauri, an MBA student, have decided to take the leap
of faith. As she flips open a can of Diet Coke in one of the capital's bustling
markets, Gauri admits that she and her friends stopped drinking the sodas after
the first report. "But Coke is a big company and it's been around for so long,"
she says. "I presume that the company would follow health standards, even in a
country like India."
Sadly, however, for many, toxic pollution is just a fact of daily life. "We know
there are pesticides in everything," shrugs 19-year-old Rahul. "There are
pesticides in the soil. Through the soil we get fruit, we get the vegetables
that we eat."
There may, however, well be a silver lining in this tale of corporate neglect.
Prompted by an earlier study by CSE that fond unsafe pesticide levels in bottled
water (including some owned by Coke and Pepsi), the government voted to adopt
the European Union's standard for bottled water as of January 2004. Now, thanks
to the toxic-soda controversy, the Indian government is moving toward setting
enforceable water regulations.
"We have to fix certain safety standards," admits Prasad Rao, the Indian health
minister. "Today, water is not included in our Prevention of Food Adulteration
act which guides food standards. We have to revise our norms for drinking
In other good news, Nepal and other neighboring South Asian countries have begun
testing their locally-bottled Coke and Pepsi for toxics. And while many Indians
have started drinking soda again, experts like Agarwal believe that the debacle
is actually a defining moment for food safety and consumer awareness in this
Miranda Kennedy is a writer and radio journalist based in New Delhi. http://www.alternet.org/story.html?StoryID=16717