Strong colas and weak governments

When we released our study on pesticides in soft drinks, our objective was clear: we needed action on regulations, which had been stymied because of corporate pressure. What we hadn’t anticipated was the response of the cola majors. Three years have lapsed since we published our first report on pesticides in colas. The response then had been immediate and vituperative. “There are no pesticides in our drinks and the Centre for Science and Environment cannot test our products” was the line taken by the cola majors. This challenge led to the formation of a joint parliamentary committee (jpc) to investigate, not the pesticides in colas, but our institution. We were given the bitter taste of the power of these companies.

When the jpc ruled in our favour and asked the government to set regulations, we knew that the real task had just begun. The regulation on pesticide residues in colas would enable us to work at revamping the standard-setting mechanisms for food and drinks, to ensure that contamination was kept within safe limits. The question was how the regulator would set limits on processed food — like soft drinks — so that our health was not jeopardised.

We decided to work with standard-setting agencies so that the rules of the game could be framed jointly. The first issue brought before us was if the standard for soft drinks should be the same as that for juices and other beverages. In other words, what should be the scope of the standard? For instance, acceptable mercury limits in water is 1 part per billion, while that in fruit juices, given its different constituents, is 1 part per million. Clubbing the two would make either the water standard too lenient or the juice standard too stringent. Both would be impractical.

The bottom line was also to ensure that overall exposure of Indians to different contaminants was kept at safe levels. This was the second regulatory challenge. How would we determine total exposure based on the acceptable daily intake of each contaminant and how would this be apportioned in our diets? This meant deciding on the trade-off between poison and nutrition. In other words, essential food could be given a quota of pesticides as against non-nutritive foods.

The third challenge was to decide if there would be a final product standard. In other words the challenge before us was: should what is safe or unsafe be measured against the product that we eat, or should each ingredients used in the manufacture of the product be measured. The cola majors, for instance, strongly argued for standards based on raw ingredients. This would mean regulating the water and sugar used in their product separately. The enforcement would be impossible because inspectors would have to check and certify each ingredient. It would also mean that small manufacturers would suffer, because their method of production would be under constant scrutiny and they would open to harassment.

In the specific case of colas it was apparent that these standards had not been laid down in other parts of the world. The reason was clear: governments had checked their contents and not found contamination and so not found the need to set standards. But it was also clear that governments could and did set standards for even more complex multi-ingredient products than colas. For instance, governments in Europe and elsewhere had set pesticide residues standards for baby food.

The next challenge was to work on how to set this multi-ingredient final product standard. The principle was simple: final residues allowed in the product would be the sum of the residues legally allowed in the raw materials. In simple language it meant that if water was 89 per cent of the product, then the residues legally allowed in it would be permitted and if sugar is 10 per cent of the final product, then residues legally allowed in it would be carried forward. Under Indian laws, final sugar standards have been set. These standards would not allow for pesticide residues because it is assumed that the process of refinement of sugar minimises these. But cola companies argued that there was pesticide in sugar. Their implicit threat was that they would stop buying Indian sugar if the final product standard was made.

This meant a new enquiry: to check pesticide residues in sugar. Data collected from across the country showed pesticide residues in sugar was negligible. Many meetings later the matter was settled. The committee, which agreed to set the standards, faced opposition from industry and also ironically the health ministry, the custodian of public health in the country. It used specious and lame excuses to keep the matter in committees and sub-committees and take no action. The final standard was quietly buried.

So, after almost two years of negotiations, the cola companies made their intentions crystal clear: the final product standard would not be finalised because it was not in their interest to be regulated. What this showed us was how corporate power could work against health-based regulations.

The Indian media has reported veiled threats from officials of the us government that this issue will curtail foreign direct investment (fdi). But let us remember that fdi needs regulated environments and the rule of law. The pesticide in colas is a case of large and powerful corporations misusing their power to pressure our government not to notify regulations. This is a case of corruption and abuse of power.

The battle is now in the open. Just remember this is not just about colas or pesticides. It is about how we will regulate against the will of the world’s big and small corporations. Just remember this is about food — what we eat and drink. It is about our health. It is non-negotiable.

— Sunita Narain