Skip to comments.India Tries to Contain Tempest Over Soft Drink Safety [The Flip-Side of Protectionism]
Posted on 08/22/2003 10:24:43 PM PDT by 1rudeboy
August 23, 2003
India Tries to Contain Tempest Over Soft Drink SafetyBy AMY WALDMAN
EW DELHI, Aug. 22 There have been few such long-winded efforts to say that Coke is still it.
Throughout the capital's bustling INA market, which sells everything from Oreo cookies made in China to "Hot Eats" of North India, soft drink vendors had posted fliers this week proclaiming that "Coca-Cola refreshes you with world-class and safe products in India."
The fliers, spread across the country as well, said Coke had tested its sodas for pesticide parts per billion, an exercise as arduous as "tracing one person out of India's whole population." They even reassured customers that Coca-Cola India's 5,000 employees actually consume the soft drink they produce.
Why the earnest verbiage in place of catchy jingles?
Earlier this month, a respected nongovernmental group here, the Center for Science and Environment, released a report saying tests on the 12 leading soft drink brands had revealed unsafe levels of pesticides in all of them.
As it turned out, all 12 brands were owned by Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, which entered the Indian soft drink market in the early 1990's and conquered it, scooping up rival domestic brands along the way. Their sales promptly plunged after the center's report was published.
Much of the air drained out of the furor on Thursday when the Minister of Health and Family Welfare announced that government tests on 12 samples had not found unsafe levels of pesticides.
The soft drink giants bitter rivals who had joined force in mutual self-interest pronounced themselves vindicated, saying the government called their products "perfectly safe." A joint statement called the government announcement "an enormous step in restoring consumer confidence" in their products.
The two companies responded to lists of specific questions with their press statements.
But the director of the Center for Science and Environment, Sunita Narain, said she was at a loss to explain the discrepancy. "Both results cannot be right," she said.
A lot is at stake. The two companies sell billions of soft drinks a year to Indians, and wage pitched battles with Bollywood stars doing the pitching for market share.
The center's report prompted outrage, not least because it said Coke and Pepsi products sold in the United States did not contain similar pollutants. Parliament promptly banned the drinks in its cafeteria. Protesters smashed them. Consumers shunned them. Shops here and in much of the country, report declines in soft drink sales ranging from 10 to 75 percent.
Of course, both companies are symbols of globalization. Antiwar protesters have attacked their facilities, and both have faced complaints that their plants are depriving people in the southern state of Kerala of drinking water.
But there have been no suggestions in India that the center's findings were manipulated for political reasons. Even in Kerala, the government has edged toward siding with Coke and Pepsi, discouraging protest against them and saying the jobs they provide are too important.
The tempest has left its mark. After the report exposed a confusing and ultimately porous regulatory framework that did nothing to regulate the quality of water in soft drinks, the health minister, Sushma Swaraj, said the government would consider imposing European Union standards on the water in soft drinks.
For two weeks, a quiet chorus had been murmuring that the problem was not with multinationals, but with the government that failed to regulate them. Coke and Pepsi, people here say, could not allow pesticides in sodas sold in Europe or the United States because governments there would not let them.
Ms. Narain said she hoped that the debate would also raise awareness of India's lack of standards for potable water, and the absence of a pesticide policy in a country heavily dependent on agriculture.
If pesticides were indeed present in soft drinks, it would probably be because they had soaked into the groundwater used to make them.
An earlier study by the center of 30 bottled water samples including some owned by Coke and Pepsi found that most of them had unsafe pesticide levels, prompting the government to adopt the European Union's standard for bottled water, effective Jan. 1.
The center investigates and ranks Indian industry on issues related to the environment and health. Ms. Narain said she had never before taken on multinationals in such a direct confrontation, and did not set out to this time. Only after her team began testing the country's most popular sodas did they realize, she said, that all of them, whether Thums Up or Mirinda Lemon, were owned by Coke or Pepsi.
Such consolidation was one of the fears when India embarked on liberalization in 1991, slowly opening its economy to the outside world. It remains a work in progress, and one still marked by political ambivalence, evident now in the debate over new rules allowing for greater foreign ownership of the media and other industries.
But despite the revelation that two foreign companies had cornered the soft drink market, despite the accusation now rebuffed by the health ministry that they contained unsafe pesticide levels, no one seriously suggested that Coke or Pepsi be ejected from the country, as Coke was in 1977 for refusing to allow its secret syrup to be made in India. It took 16 years for Coke to begin importing to India again, and another four for it to begin manufacturing.
The battle from now on may be over what sort of standards to adopt, and here India may find itself caught between Europe and the United States. The United States, which requires carbonated beverages to meet the same standards as bottled water, relies largely on World Health Organization guidelines, which are significantly less stringent than those set in the European Union.
Actually, it is the left and the right uniting against the middle/moderates and it is worldwide. Recall the photo of Buchannan and the Marxists marching/holding hands in Seattle.
More like the delivery/salemen started the rumor.
A decade or so back, in NYC, an upstart soda company was hitting the bodegas with 20oz for $1.00 when C/P was $1 for 16oz.
The rival Coke/Pepsi delivery guys started rumors about causing sterility in blacks.
The new soda company was owned and operated by blacks. Can't remember what happened.
I didn't renew my business mag subscriptions.
And don't get me started on the Buchanan-Fulani thing.