Suspected Soft Drink Contamination Raises Broader Questions About Food Safety in India

Is there pesticide in your Coca-Cola?

After the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) released a study earlier this month citing high levels of pesticides in Indian soft drinks manufactured by Coca-Cola and Pepsi Co., protests erupted across the country and seven states instituted partial bans on the products. But the continued focus on major soft drink manufacturers has left the broader issue of food and groundwater contamination in India in the background of this raging debate.

Pesticide residues in India’s food supply are not present only in soft drinks. The “green revolution” that brought great advances in crop yields during the second half of the 20th century also gave rise to increasing use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Runoff from agricultural chemicals has led to degrading groundwater quality and the accumulation of pollutants in soil and crops, posing health risks to those who work the land or consume contaminated items. As pesticide use and water demand continue to rise , falling water tables will likely result in growing concentrations of these toxins in the water supply. 

CSE’s latest study is part of a larger campaign to push for national safety standards for consumable goods in India. In 2003, the group published its first report linking pesticides with the soft drink industry, which found that the same brands of drinks that contained pesticides in India did not contain the toxins in the United States. This apparent double standard for multinational soft drink manufacturers exposed weaknesses in India’s regulatory framework and prompted the creation of a Joint Parliamentary Committee on the issue. Although the Committee subsequently confirmed CSE’s original findings and recommended that safety standards be set, the agreed-upon limits for exposure to pesticides have yet to be formalized by the Bureau of Indian Standards.

CSE latest research, conducted earlier this year, concludes that all 11 of the major Indian-produced soft drinks they sampled tested positive for organochlorine and organophosphate pesticides, many at levels far exceeding those allowed in Europe. Reports of the findings sent demonstrators to the streets in several cities , defacing signs advertising the drinks and smashing bottles and cans. The state of Kerala has prohibited the production and sale of products manufactured by Coca-Cola and Pepsi, while Karnataka filed suit against the companies under the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act. The two producers, which together account for 90 percent of the soft drink market in India, deny that their products are unsafe for consumption.

The Indian Health Ministry has criticized the new report, saying that CSE failed to prove its case due to faulty methodology. Yet a litany of complaints against the companies, ranging from the environmental impacts of their factories to the effects of soft drink consumption on nutrition, have combined with nationalist and anti-corporate sentiment to further fuel the controversy. One Indian environmental organization is planning a blockade of vehicles carrying Coca-Cola and Pepsi products in November, and states have reiterated their bans as further testing is carried out.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.