In what is becoming a raging debate over the safety standards of bottled carbonated soft drinks in India, the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment has dismissed government findings that Coca-Cola and Pepsi are not harmful to human consumption.
Disputing studies conducted by the ministry of health which gave the cola companies a clean bill of health as "junk science", the CSE on August 23 reiterated its position that "colas are not safe" and pressed for greater government transparency over the issue.
But Anbumani Ramadoss, India's health minister, told parliament that further testing of the cola products was necessary.
"I have stated in my answer that we are not contradicting the CSE report," he told the media. "It is not that the report is right or wrong. Currently it is inconclusive and we need more details."
The CSE says that the health minister told parliament a total of "two" bottles were tested by the government, which he has used to give the cola companies a certificate of safety. Another 28 bottles have been tested in Gujarat, for which no details are available.
"This is dangerous, as it amounts to misleading us about the health impacts of these drinks," the CSE told Aljazeera.net.
On August 25, the CSE said it had been threatened with legal action by pesticide companies for its campaign against pesticide residues in soft drinks. A CSE press release said: "The pesticide industry has been behaving like the proverbial bully. It should immediately stop these intimidating tactics. We dare it to take us to court."
Sunita Narain, CSE's director, said: "The right of individuals and organisations like CSE to carry out action in public interest and in favour of public health cannot be questioned. It is a right to hold industries and governments accountable for their action, and should be strengthened - not suppressed."
The CSE is also asking the government to divulge its testing methodologies, its sampling and whether it will provide this information to the Bureau of Indian Standards.
Aljazeera.net interviewed the CSE's Shachi Chaturvedi.
Aljazeera.net: What were the high pesticides residues present in the cola products? Are they fatal to human consumption?
Shachi Chaturvedi: We tested 57 samples collected from across India (12 states, accounting for some 30% of the country's bottling plants), and found pesticide residues that were 22-24 times above the levels in all the samples. We found Lindane, Chlorpyrifos, Malathion and Heptachlor.
The bottles were tested using a methodology which, three years ago, was examined and endorsed by the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC).
Moreover, the presence of pesticide residues was additionally confirmed with gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC-MS) and all its spectra confirm pesticide residues.
Pesticides are used to kill pests, and contain extremely toxic elements. They get into our food chain and keep bio-accumulating in our body over a long period of time. A host of studies done across the world have pointed to the link between pesticides and diseases such as cancer, neurological disorders, foetal problems etc.
When you say levels, do you mean normal safety levels?
By levels we mean the standards finalised by Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS), but which have not been legally notified. We have taken these standards as the benchmark against which we have tested the soft drinks for pesticide residues.
Our position has been and will always be notification of standards for pesticides in the final product, soft drinks. And we maintain this position.
Has the Indian government taken note of this?
It claims it has. But it has not yet done what we are asking for: notifying the standards for pesticide residues in soft drinks, so that soft drink companies are forced to meet these standards and provide clean, safe products to consumers.
Some Indian states have banned Indian subsidiaries of Coca-Cola and PepsiCo from manufacturing and selling soft drinks. Do you expect more states to follow?
We do not support the bans: banning is not the solution, regulating is. But the states are forced to ban in the absence of a central regulation. We cannot say whether other states will follow suit - it is their choice.
Anbumani Ramadoss, federal minister of health and family welfare, has questioned your findings, but the CSE claimed the minister is focused on industrial health, not people's health. Is a war with the government brewing over this matter?
It is not a war. We will, as always, work with the government to realise our aim - notification of the standards. If you recall, the same thing had happened in 2003. The then health minister had given a clean chit to the companies, and a JPC was constituted to look into our report - and we were vindicated.
We stand by our report and findings.
A UK lab's report for Coca-Cola has said that the finding of heptachlor by CSE was questionable because it has been banned in India since 1996. How do you account for their report?
The UK lab knows nothing about tropical toxicology. Heptachlor has a long half-life. It can remain in the environment for 20 years after a ban on it comes into effect - so what they are saying is complete hogwash.
Moreover, there have been numerous post-1996 studies in India which have found heptachlor in various food products.
Have you met with representatives from Coca-Cola and/or Pepsi?
Not yet. But both of them have expressed a desire to meet with us. If we meet them, we would do so to discuss only one thing - how soon can the standards be notified.
Where do you conduct your tests? Who funds your research?
We conduct our tests at our own Pollution Monitoring Laboratory in Delhi. It is a small, but state-of-the-art facility. We have all the necessary equipment and expertise to conduct such tests. We conduct all our research for public interest. We get our funds from a variety of sources - including the government and foreign bodies like the Swedish International Development Agency.
Will the Coca-Cola/Pepsi debate lead to revisiting the transparency of health standards in India's food and beverages sector?
We are definitely aiming for that, and are hoping to achieve it.
If the government insists on its position, what will your next step be? Have you considered an international scientific arbiter? Do you oppose or support sending lab results to outside labs for secondary testing?
We will deal with our government and government agencies and see no need for an international scientific arbiter.
Also, we firmly stand by our laboratory study. We are now ISO 9001: 2000 certified and have confirmed our study by using the advanced GC-MS equipment. So we see no need to get secondary testing done from labs outside.