VOL 15 ,NO 6 Wednesday, August 02, 2006
Headline : The street fight
Intro:Three years have passed since the day we released our first study on pesticides. The government reduced excise duty on soft drinks in this year’s budget. The market is looking up. But the standards recommended were blocked by powerful interests in the government. The CSE team presents the inside story
Our world changed a little when we published the study on pesticide residues in soft drinks. In the work we do, fights go with the territory. We need to challenge institutions — government and private — in the public interest. What we had not anticipated, however, was the sheer power and the virulence of the attack. The fact is that the two companies affected — Coca-Cola and PepsiCo — were incidental to our story on pesticide contamination and the need for food standards to regulate safety. The fact that two us multinationals were involved was a mere coincidence. But not for them.
The first attack was on our laboratory — they questioned the data analysis, our capabilities, our equipment and then as it got nastier, they resorted to personalised attacks on us and our integrity. Their favourite ploy was to dismiss us as a pawn in a conspiracy hatched by Europe (because we get funds from multilateral and bilateral agencies) to destroy the good name of us companies. But this was not all. We heard rumours of phone calls from Colin Powell, then us secretary of state, to the prime minister’s office. We heard of Washington DC-based high-priced lawyers (lobbyists) flying down to cajole the powers here. We heard of intense activity in corridors in which we have no place.
We sensed the tables had turned against us. We knew when we had visits from the grey-clad men from the Intelligence Bureau to check on us. We knew when we were asked to submit to the government data on 20 years of accounts, 20 years of our funding data, 20 years of detail on every staff member who has worked with us, along with their addresses. The strategy, we knew, was to trip us — somehow. The final straw came when the swadeshi -oriented health minister Sushma Swaraj of the National Democratic Alliance government took their side. We say this not because of the study she ordered to check our data, not because of her statement in parliament regarding the study of two scientific institutions and the variation in data gathered by them and us. We say this because she carefully crafted her speech to sneak in the phrase “within safety limit”. In other words, the drinks were safe. A clean chit had been given.
We also say this because she drafted the terms of reference of the Joint Parliamentary Committee (jpc) that investigated the matter to turn it into an enquiry against us. The 15-member jpc was to investigate if the “recent findings of the Centre for Science and Environment (cse) regarding pesticide residues in soft drinks are correct or not”. In other words, we were in the dock, not the cola companies. The rest is history. The jpc was created to bury us, but it ended up vindicating our study. It endorsed our position that the country needed health-based standards for food and water security (see ‘Democracy must be worked at’, Down To Earth, February 29, 2004).
What after that?
We Indians are a cynical lot. Perhaps we have reason to be. We believe that little will be done, nothing will really improve and that the rich and powerful will get away with murder (in a manner of speaking). It is not all that wrong as well. Take the cola-pesticide wars. The story may have inspired a Bollywood movie — Corporate — but it has done little else. Even as the jpc was deliberating on its report, the two cola giants launched perhaps the biggest ad blitz in the country. Top stars, from Aamir Khan to Shahrukh Khan, were hired to reassure us that the drinks were safe. They mocked our study. They derided our message of safety. They danced and sang to seduce us to go back to colas. But that is their job. They are paid actors. The problem was that the regulator — the government — abdicated its role.
Three years have passed since the day we released our study. The market for colas, we are told, has recovered from the pesticide-controversy blip. The government of the day is favourably inclined towards promoting this habit. In this year’s budget, an excise duty cut has made the cola giants more profitable. The market is looking up. We have no complaints.
But where we have a bone to pick is that even as the drinks are back in our homes, nothing has been done to implement the recommendations of the jpc. The standards that needed to be set to regulate their safety have been lost in committees or blocked by powerful interests in the government. The cola-pesticide issue has become one more action-not-taken story.
But battles, as we said, go with our territory. We are dogs with a bone — we won’t give up. The reason is not egoism or arrogance. The reason is simple: we believe in this nation’s democracy. For the past three years, we have worked within the system to discuss and formulate safety standards for these products. We have worked with the process. We have found it works. We found in this process that the integrity of top scientists could not be compromised. But we also found that the process could easily be manipulated by the bureaucracy.
This is why we are taking this issue back to you. We are releasing the study — Coke-Pepsi-Pesticide ii — so that you who are wooed by the companies can exercise your choice.
Our reason is simple: if soft drinks contain a cocktail of pesticides above stipulated standard, they are unsafe. The companies say there are no stipulated standards. The reason is simple: they don’t allow standards to be formulated. The companies say milk and vegetables have more pesticides than colas. But milk and vegetables also have nutrition. They give us something in this poison-nutrition trade-off. We get nothing with colas. Just pesticides. Harmful and deadly.
As we write this, we don’t know how we will be attacked this time. We are sure, given past experience, that it will be vituperative and powerful.
We don’t know if we will survive. But we know that the issues we are concerned with will gain strength. They are too important to be knocked around by a few companies, even if they are the world’s most powerful ones. These issues concern our bodies. Our health.
Private interest rules public roost
On March 29, 2006, the Drinks and Carbonated Beverages Sectional Committee or FAD 14 of the Bureau of Indian Standards (bis) was meeting in New Delhi. For the past 20-odd meetings, held over the past three years, the committee had deliberated on the standards for carbonated beverages. When it last met in October 2005, at the Defence Food Research Laboratory, Mysore, the committee had finalised standards. At the March meeting, the committee was asked to re-confirm its decision
Even as the meeting began early morning, a letter was presented to the committee. The letter, dated March 29, 2006 — the date of the meeting — written by the secretary of the Union ministry of health and family welfare, to the secretary of the Union ministry of consumer affairs, asked bis to defer setting standards.The health secretary wanted this done because he said that a national-level expert committee on pesticide residues in sugar was to meet shortly to discuss its interim report. It also wanted more data to be collected on other parameters — caffeine, ph — before standards could be set. What he did not say was that this committee had been set up after the jpc report over two years ago and that it was still only considering preliminary findings and that his ministry had not set a time period to finalise standards.
Perhaps not too oddly, this letter, which parroted the position of industry, was timed so strategically. Its value to the attempts of soft drink majors to stall standards was immense. But what was bizarre was that the letter was dated March 29, which meant that the health secretary must have dispatched it on the day of the standard-setting meeting, and with amazing speed it cut through all government channels to reach the desk of the secretary, consumer affairs, to be routed to the bis headquarters some 5-6 km away. And completely inexplicable was the soft drink companies’ knowledge about not just the existence but also the contents of the letter. But then the stakes were high.
For the past three years, soft drink companies and their industry associations had fought tooth and nail against setting up a final product standard. In August 2003, when cse had released its findings on pesticide residues in soft drinks, it had made one fact clear: there were no standards for the quantity of pesticides allowed in the soft drinks and that these products worked outside the ambit of the regulators. The jpc endorsed cse’s scientific analysis and directed that standards should be set. The objective was clear: to set final standards and to regulate the product for public health.
Since then, two processes have been underway. One was driven by the health ministry. In 2004, it had set standards for the quality of water which would be used in the manufacture of soft drinks. But this did not address the quality of the final product. Worse, it left open the issue of how the inspectors would enforce this standard since it would require checking not the soft drink, but the water used to manufacture the beverage in each plant.
In this process, the final product standard, deliberated since February 2004, remained mired within committees and their sub-committees. In early 2004, the ministry’s central committee on food standards agreed to refer the matter to its pesticide residue sub-committee, which would examine the pesticide content in sugar, the other constituent of soft drinks. In October 2004, the sub-committee decided to hand over this decision to an expert committee. The expert committee, in turn, decided to collect sugar samples from different parts of the country to analyse pesticide content. Ministry officials say the report, due in April 2006, is only a pilot study and will be used for more detailed analysis and study. The health ministry has no time frame for setting the final standard.
The second process is driven by bis, an autonomous institution under the department of consumer affairs, mandated to set and review standards for products in the country. bis had an existing voluntary standard for carbonated beverages, which was up for its mandatory five-year review. This standard did not regulate pesticide residues. Directed by jpc, bis’s standard-setting committee decided to work on reviewing and finalising the standard, taking into account new health imperatives. The committee included representatives of all interested parties — cola majors, the bottled water industry, industry associations, food and nutrition scientists, and consumer and environmental groups. It had, after months of deliberation, come to the point of finalising the standard, which was demanded by consumer and environmental groups and opposed by soft drink companies. The opposition was out in the open. They were determined to make sure the committee did not set the standard, using every possible ruse to prevaricate and delay. The game was nearing touchdown.
Sugar: Companies say there are pesticides in sugar. They want a study on how much and standards to be set on the raw material and not on the final product. They say they are only the hand that ‘mixes’ the ingredients
Soft drinks contain two key constituents — roughly 89 per cent water and 10 per cent sugar. The rest of the 1 per cent is made up of a secret ingredient and carbon dioxide. This is what the companies told jpc. With standards for water set, the question to resolve was the amount of pesticide residues contributed by sugar, so that the final product standard could be set. This issue was brought to jpc where the health ministry (now devising lengthy studies) had deposed that “the pesticide residue in sugar and the quantity of sugar used in soft drinks is so small that it is not likely to increase the pesticide residue in the final product”. Soft drink companies also told jpc in written submissions that they had a fool-proof system of procuring high-quality sugar and a system to treat the sugar syrup by a hot carbon process during which pesticide residues are eliminated. jpc asked them to submit data, which they did. This data showed little presence of pesticides in sugar. It was for two samples tested by the Hyderabad-based vimta Labs in October 2003. On the basis of this evidence, jpc asked for the final product standard to be formulated.
But cola companies made veiled threats of importing sugar if the final product standard was pursued. The sugar issue came to bis. In July 2004, both PepsiCo and Coca-Cola wrote to top officials of the department of consumer affairs complaining against bis officials. They claimed they had proof that “confirms the presence of pesticide residues in sugar available in India” and wanted this to be taken into account. The standards committee, when it met next, asked the companies to submit their evidence. The companies submitted the data for the same two samples it had given to jpc many months ago.
A careful scrutiny of this data showed that in all samples pesticides were below the 1 part per billion (ppb) level. More data was called for. Two more sugar sample data was given by companies to the committee. But the analysis was the same: tests done by the Netherlands-based tno labs in February 2004 and the London-based Central Analytical Lab, earlier in September 2003, detected negligible pesticide residues. But the companies were still not satisfied. More data was called for. In early 2005, the Hyderabad-based National Institute of Nutrition submitted data on pesticide residues in sugar. Analysis of 11 samples showed no presence of pesticide in sugar.
But this was not sufficient. Even more tests were called for. In October 2005, vimta Labs submitted data for 135 samples, which they tested for 50 pesticides. Their analysis revealed the contribution of sugar to the pesticide content in the final soft drink was well below the draft standard of 0.1 ppb for individual pesticide and 0.5 ppb for total pesticides.
It was further pointed out that these tests were done on raw sugar. Both PepsiCo and Coca-Cola had submitted to jpc that they treated sugar through a hot carbon process, which reduced the pesticide content further. Based on this information, the committee decided to finalise the standard. It agreed that the standard for pesticide residues in water should be mandated for the final product.
Their final product cannot be tested because it has a complex matrix. They say standards are never set for the final product, only the raw material
Water and sugar make up soft drinks, which is hardly complex. Globally, governments test routinely for contaminants at sub-ppb levels for all products sold to consumers — from baby food to tinned food. In fact, governments test the same soft drinks for pesticide residues in different countries. In India, government laboratories tested soft drinks to check their pesticide residues. Ironically, the two soft drink majors also tested their product to prove their safety. One company used the results of the London-based laboratory to give itself a clean chit. How do the companies know that their product is ‘safe’ if it cannot be tested?
Top analytical chemists in the country discussed this issue in the bis committee. Their unanimous view was that methods to test soft drinks exist and that, after the standard was finalised, bis would prepare the protocol for measurement to be used by all laboratories.
Industry, not just soft drink companies, does not want standards for the final product. They believe that standards should be set only for constituents — water and the sugar, not the beverage. They say pesticide standards for final products, which are multi-ingredient, cannot be done. They assert it is not done anywhere in the world. But the facts are different. Governments have pesticide residue standards for cereal-based food and infant food, for butter, for cheese and even ice-cream. Governments are learning they need to work at both ends — standardise maximum residue levels allowed on the raw materials as well as on the manufactured foods, so that industrial units can adopt technologies for cleaning up contaminants.
The principle for setting standards is obvious: the pesticide residue allowances of different ingredients, proportional to their presence in the product, are added to make a final product standard.
In other words, 89 per cent of the pesticide residue water standard is added to 10 per cent of the pesticide residues contributed through sugar. In the final bis standard, the data on pesticide residues from sugar, presented by the companies, showed that this contribution would be negligible and so, the water standard for pesticide residues, which is 89 per cent of the product, was adopted.
The health ministry’s pesticide residue sub-committee was entrusted the job of fixing a pesticide residue standard for soft drinks. The committee, in March 2004, called “stakeholders” for discussions. Interestingly, for this health ministry sub-committee the only worthy stakeholders were industry. Of the 21 invited, only five responded and only two made written submissions. The five who made presentations were Coca-Cola India, PepsiCo India, the Indian Soft Drink Manufacturers Association (again represented by PepsiCo India), the International Soft Drink Council, All India Food Processors Association and Kali Aerated Water Works — the only domestic company. Of these, only two submitted their written views to the sub-committee, namely Coca-Cola India and PepsiCo India, whose drinks were found by JPC to have high amounts of pesticide. The committee then decided on its course of action: to undertake a year-long nationwide monitoring of soft drinks for presence of pesticide residues. Even more telling is the fact that the committee has asked for analysis of raw sugar samples, when it knows that companies use refined sugar, which in turn goes through processes that clean it for residues. But the health ministry wants to play sugar daddy. Delaying the process using “good science” is the name of the game.
The current Indian standard for caffeine in soft drinks is lenient — up to 200 mg/l is permitted. There are no standards for pH in the drinks. Global standards differentiate between cola (brown drinks), where caffeine is added as an ingredient, and white drinks, where caffeine is merely an ingredient for addiction. Global standards also stress the health concerns for caffeine use and companies manufacture products which are caffeine-free.
But in India, this best practice is not accepted. Companies bung in caffeine into white drinks — Mountain Dew, a Pepsi product, which has captured the market, for instance, contains caffeine. They do not want to manufacture caffeine-free versions. They say: “Indians have not asked us.” They continue to say tea and coffee has more caffeine, not recognising that children don’t drink tea but guzzle soft drinks.
The existing standard has no scientific basis. But when the question of revision came up, keeping in mind best practice, companies managed to persuade the health ministry to undertake long-term studies before it finalised change. On the other hand, the BIS committee took cognisance of all scientific information and best practices of different countries to evolve its standard. It set a standard of 145 mg/l of caffeine in brown colas and asked for labels on the product to ensure that people’s health was not compromised. This standard, the committee felt, could be further revised when long-term health studies were available.
The pH of a product determines its health impact. The health ministry told parliament that “pH below 2.5 could cause irreversible and extensive damage to the human epithelium”. Soft drink manufacturers maintained that there was no global precedence for a pH standard. This was not true. South Africa includes pH in its standards. Data was collected on pH of different drinks. Based on all this, the standard for pH was fixed at 2.5 and above. Companies were furious.