Colas: The Media are Guilty too

Surprisingly, the dust may soon settle on the pesticides-in-cola issue. Sunita Narain of Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) said on Friday that she agreed with this newspaper’s editorial line, that cola drinks should not be banned but should be regulated using scientific standards that are credible and enforceable. The cola companies then agreed to pesticide standards for soft drinks—which they had opposed for years, saying only inputs should be tested– subject to appropriate testing protocols and validation.  New standards will hopefully be notified by next April.

This lowering of temperature seemed unlikely when CSE declared last week that it had found pesticide levels in carbonated drinks of Coke and Pepsi that were far higher than the proposed but yet-to-be-issued norms of the Bureau of Industrial Standards (BIS). Kerala banned the sale and production of Coke and Pepsi. Several states banned sales in government canteens and schools.

The cola companies insisted that their drinks were safe. The business chambers, FICCI and CII, protested that the arbitrariness of the ban was a threat to every industry, not just fizzy drinks. The BIS standards in question had yet to be notified. How could action be taken for violating standards that had not been notified? Besides, how could a state close down industries without independent confirmation of an NGO report?  

This is why the US Undersecretary for International Trade says the cola ban may hit  foreign investment in India. Americans do not  think MNCs are above negligence and dirty tricks. MNCs are regularly found violating various laws in the US, and regularly fined. Many CEOs have been jailed.

So, foreign investors are used to strict enforcement of standards. What worries them is arbitrary action (like Kerala’s ban) unrelated to clear rules (like notified standards) or conclusive evidence (like government testing to confirm CSE’s findings). It worries Indian businesses too.

My position has long been that colas are safer than alternatives. The biggest health risk comes not from pesticides but bacteria, which kill millions. Cola has far less bacteria than most alternatives, including plain water. That is why many foreign tourists and NRIs drink Coke, Pepsi or bottled water, and nothing else. Ironically, these three drinks are the very ones targeted by CSE as being unsafe. 

Besides, the actual pesticide level, according to government surveys, is 3,080 times  higher in milk, 69,700 times higher in vegetables and 111,600 times higher in fruit than in the proposed cola standards. The maximum permitted level for tea leaves is almost 60,000 times higher.  These are treated as priority items in diet, and so are permitted high levels, unlike colas, which are held to be inessential. But even if colas exceed EU standards ten times, they will have far less pesticides than milk or fruit juice. If you ban colas, what will people switch to? Water, tea, cane juice and fruit juices. All of them have more pesticides than colas, and I refuse to be consoled by CSE’s information that they have more nutrition. Banning colas will increase pesticide intake, not decrease it.

Nevertheless, I support CSE’s case for imposing much stricter standards on cola than fruit juice. It is practical to take pesticides out of colas, but not out of fruit. The cost is entirely bearable for cola companies.

When I met Sunita Narain after the cola ban last week, I expected her to be in a victorious mood. To my surprise, she said she was depressed. CSE had had been fighting for three years to get standards notified and implemented, and she was sick of the interminable delay. She had hoped for an early notification, but now everything had been put on hold because the Health Minister was appointing another committee. The bans were temporary political expedients that would not work. She wanted to the BIS standards notified immediately, so that she could move on to other environmental issues. She said her aim was not to target MNCs, but to use the MNC issue to raise awareness of the need for higher standards across the board.

This is a perfectly good argument for subjecting MNCseeking stiff standards on MNCs. It is not leftist extremism. Why then does she have such a strong image as an MNC-basher? It stems in part from her own beliefs and writings, but also from the fact that the press has built her up to be a desi David battling foreign Goliaths. She relishes the publicity, and thinks it will help her improve environmental standards everywhere. Yet the media do very little to highlight her other green campaigns. The media gives top billing to her criticism of MNCs while largely ignoring her criticisms of the government or Indian companies.

How serious is this media bias? To test it, I went back to the pesticides-in-bottled water issue in 2003.The public remembers this mainly as the start of her campaign against the cola companies, which also sell bottled water (Kinley and Aquafina). Yet CSE’s actual findings were not an anti-MNC tirade.

The highest lindane level (45 times  EU standards) was found in a brand called Hero, followed by No 1 McDowell (43 times), Paras (31 times) and Volga (29 times). Chlorpyrifos levels was highest in No 1 McDowell  (370 times), but also high in Bisleri (109 times), Kinley (109 times) and Aquafina (23 times). The highest levels of organochlorines and organophosphorus were in Aquaplus (104 times), a Delhi brand favoured by the Railways. Bisleri came third (79 times), and  Kinley further down (14.6 times).

The data make it clear that CSE did not target MNCs. It pointed fingers at all manufacturers, ranging from small local brands to the biggest. Yet the public remembers mainly the accusations against Coke and Pepsi, and perhaps Bisleri. This is at least partly due to media bias in highlighting the big fish, as opposed to the worst offenders.

So, if many states have stupidly banned colas, do not blame just CSE and cynical politicians. The media deserve part of the blame too. 

 

What do you think?