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Coke Pepsi and the Politics of Food Safety


In a democracy, a ban on harmful products and activities is an expression of citizens’ freedoms and rights. Bans protect citizens from hazards to health and the environment. That is why smoking has been banned in public places. That is why ozone-depleting substances were banned under the Montreal Protocol. That is why the Basel Convention banned the trade in toxic wastes and hazards.

Coke and Pepsi have firmly joined the group of toxic and hazardous products that need to be banned to protect the health of citizens and to protect the environment. On 22nd August, the “Coke Pepsi Quit India” campaign intensified its movement to ban Coke and Pepsi “with a ban Coke Pepsi” day of actions. Kerala has banned Colas. Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan have banned Soft Drinks in educational institutions and Government Canteens. And Coke Pepsi Free Zones are spreading across the country.

Stealing Water, Creating Thirst

There are strong environmental and human rights reasons to ban the production of soft drinks in India. Each plant of Coke and Pepsi extracts 1 – 2 million litres per day. If each plant is extracting 1 – 2 million litres per day and there are 90 plants, the daily extraction is between 90 – 180 million litres. This could meet the daily requirement of drinking water of millions of people Each litre of soft drink destroys and pollutes 10 litres of water. And the toxic sludge generated has been found to have high levels of Cadmium and Lead (Pollution Control Board, Kerala, Hazard Centre).

Long term exposure to Cadmium has the potential to cause effects like kidney dysfunction, damage to bone, liver and blood. Lead affects the central nervous system, kidney, blood and cardio-vascular system. Women in a small hamlet in Kerala succeeded in shutting down a Coca-Cola plant. “When you drink Coke, you drink the blood of people,” said Mylamma, the woman who started the movement against Coca-Cola in Plachimada. The Coca-Cola plant in Plachimada was commissioned in March 2000 to produce 1,224,000 bottles of Coca-Cola products a day and issued a conditional license to install a motor-driven water pump by the panchayat. However, the company started to illegally extract millions of liters of clean water. According to the local people, Coca-Cola was extracting 1.5 million liters per day. The water level started to fall, dropping from 150 to 500 feet below the earth’s surface. Tribals and farmers complained that water storage and supply were being adversely affected by indiscriminate installation of bore wells for tapping groundwater, resulting in serious consequences for crop cultivation. The wells were also threatening traditional drinking-water sources, ponds and water tanks, waterways and canals. When the company failed to comply with the panchayat request for details, a show-cause notice was served and the license was cancelled. Coca-Cola unsuccessfully tried to bribe the panchayat president A. Krishnan, with 300 million rupees.

Not only did Coca-Cola steal the water of the local community, it also polluted what it didn’t take. The company deposited waste material outside the plant which, during the rainy season, spread into paddy fields, canals, and wells, causing serious health hazards. As a result of this dumping, 260 bore wells provided by public authorities for drinking water and agriculture facilities have become dry. Coca-Cola was also pumping wastewater into dry bore wells within the company premises. In 2003, the district medical officer informed the people of Plachimada their water was unfit for drinking. The women, who already knew their water was toxic, had to walk miles to get water. Coca-Cola had created water scarcity in a water-abundant region by discharging waste sludge contains large quantities of lead, chromium and cadmium.

The women of Plachimada were not going to allow this hydropiracy. In 2002 they started a dharna (sit-in) at the gates of Coca-Cola. To celebrate one year of their agitation, I joined them on Earth Day 2003. On September 21, 2003, a huge rally delivered an ultimatum to Coca-Cola. And in January 2004, a World Water Conference brought global activists to Plachimada to support the local activists. A movement started by local adivasi women had unleashed a national and global wave of people’s energy in their support.

Today the plant is closed and movements have started in other plants.

The Cola giants are aggravating the water crisis already experienced by people in rural areas.

There is only one standard and measure in the issue of water use – the fundamental human right to clean, safe and adequate water cannot be violated. And Coke and Pepsi are violating this right. That is why their extraction of millions of litres of water needs to be banned. In the Plachimada case the High Court of Kerala had ruled –

“that underground water belongs to the public. The State and its instrumentalities should act as trustees of this great wealth. The State has got a duty to protect ground water against excessive exploitation and the inaction of the State in this regard will tantamount to infringement of the right to life of the people guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. The Ground water, under the land of the 2nd respondent, does not belong to it.

The underground water belongs to the general public and the 2nd respondent has not right to claim a huge share of it and the Government have no power to allow a private party to extract such a huge quantity of ground water, which is a property, held by it in trust.”

This principle of water as a public good and common property is what led to the ban on extraction of water in Plachimada. This is the principle which led local communites at 55 plants of Coke and Pepsi to serve notice to the corporations on 20th January, 2005 that they were stealing a community resource.

Stealing Health, Creating Disease

The struggle against Coke is also a struggle for health. Pesticide residues have been found in Coke and Pepsi. However, soft drinks are hazardous even without pesticides.

Soft drinks have zero nutrition value compared to our indigenous drinks such as nimbu pani, lassi, panna, sattu. The soft drink giants have succeeded in making the youth of India ashamed of our indigenous food culture in spite of its nutrition and safety through their aggressive-advertising. They have monopolized the market for thirst, buying up indigenous companies like Parle and displacing indigenous cold drinks make at home or in the cottage industry. But what Coke and Pepsi sell is a toxic brew colours, with anti-nutritive values.

The Health Minister of India had asked film stars to not endorse Coke and Pepsi because of the hazards of sugar in soft drinks, implicated in the obesity and diabetes epidemic among children. Marion Nestle has called soft drinks a quintessential “junk food”, high in calories but low in nutrition. The Centre for Science and Environment in the Public Interest has called soft drinks “liquid Candy”. A 12 ounce can contain 1.5 ounces of sugar.

Increasingly the soft drink giants are shifting to High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS). Yet the Health Minister has not addressed the issue of health risks of HFCS and health risks of GM foods if the corn used is GM corn. If the Government wants citizens to have safe sweeteners it should ban High Fructose Corn Syrup and encourage sugarcane farmers in India to go organic. The Central Government is clearly failing in protecting the health of the Indian citizens.

The nutrient-composition of soft drinks, per 12 ounce serving in comparison to orange juice and low fat milk.

Contents Coca Cola Pepsi Orange Juice Low-fat milk %Calories 154 160 168 153Sugar, g 40 40 40 18Vit. A, IU 0 0 291 750Vit C, mg 0 0 146 3Folic acid, mg 0 0 164 18Calcium, mg 0 0 33 450Potassium, mg 0 0 711 352Magnesium, mg 0 0 36 51Phosphate, mg 54 55 60 353Ref: Marion Nestle, Food Politics The sugar in soft drinks is not natural sugar, sucrose but high fructose corn syrup. Plants for making corn syrup have started to be set up in India, and if strict regulations are not put in place, the Indian diet could go the way of the US diet, with high fructose corn syrup causing insulin resistance. Unlike sucrose, fructose does not go through some of the critical intermediary breakdown steps, but is shunted toward the liver, where it mimics insulins ability to cause the liver to release fatty acids into the bloodstream. Studies have found that fructose diets have 31% more triglycerides than sucrose diets. Fructose also lowers the rate of fatty acid oxidation, P.A. Mayes, a University of London scientist has concluded that,Long-term absorption of fructose causes enzyme adaptions that increase lipogenesis fat formation and VLDL (bad cholestrol) formation leading to triglyceridemea (too many triglycerides in the blood) decreased glucose tolerance, and hyper insulinemia (too much insulin in the blood).Scientists at the University of California in Berkeley have also confirmed that overuse of fructose was skewing the American diet towards metabolic changes encouraging fat storage.

India cannot afford these high health costs of a fructose diet which also has other nutritional costs as side effects. When corn is used for high fructose syrup, the poor are denied a food staple. Already 30% corn is going for raw material for making industrial cattle feed and fructose, and is diverted from human food. In addition, the displacement of healthier sweeteners derived from sugar cane such as gur and khandsari robs farmers of incomes and livelihoods. The impact of the Colas on the food chain and economy is thus very large and does not stop with the bottle.

But what is within the bottle in any case is not fit for a healthy diet. Consumption of soft drinks is well known to contribute to tooth decay and adolescents who consume soft drinks display a risk of bone fractures 3 to 4 fold higher than those who do not drink soft drinks are becoming the greatest source of caffeine in children’s diets, with each 12 ounce can of cola containing about 45 milligrams of caffeine.

And there are other ingredients in the toxic brew, an anti-freeze compound – ethylene glycol for lower freezing, phosphoric acid to give it a bite. People are consuming 4 kg of chemicals a year per person on the basis of 20.6 million tonnes of chemicals in the form of artificial colours, flavourings etc. (Prashant Bhushan “Soft drinks – A toxic – brew). It is therefore not just pesticides we should be concerned about, but the toxic brew our children are being made addicted to by the Cola giants.

The other violation of Coke and Pepsi is the violation of the right to health. Phosphoric Acid and Carbon dioxide make soft drinks highly acidic which is why they are effective as toilet cleaners. We would not approve toilet cleaners as drinks for our children, yet industrial soft drinks, which have the same acidic properties, are being freely sold.

It is because of these hazards that schools in the U.S have banned soft drinks. It is because of these hazards 10000 schools and colleges in India have declared themselves Coke Pepsi Free Zones. It is because of these hazards, the Kerala Government has banned the Colas. It is because of these hazards the canteen in the Indian Parliament does not serve Coke and Pepsi. And it is because of these hazards Pepsi representatives admitted their drinks are not safe for children.

However, the Union Government is faltering under the pressure of the Corporations and the pressure of U.S. The Union Health Minister has questioned the Centre for Science and Environment study on pesticide residues in Coke and Pepsi citing verbatim from a study commissioned by Coca Cola. Clearly citizens health cannot be put in the hands of Government who set arbitrary standards which guarantee safety to Coke Pepsi for making super profits but do not guarantee safety for the health of citizens.

The Health Minister has announced that by January 2007 they will have safety standards in place for Coke and Pepsi. However, Coke and Pepsi will not become safe after January 2007. There are two reasons why depending on standard setting alone is unreliable for guaranteeing that citizens are getting safe and healthy products. Firstly, centralized Government decisions can be easily influenced by corporate interests, as we witnessed in the Government response to the debate in Parliament. There is a corporate science and there is a public science. In times of corporate rule, corporate science will rule. Secondly, standards by their very nature are reductionist. Standards will be set for pesticide residues only based on levels allowed for ingredients such as water and sugar, without looking at the harmful affects of the product on people’s health and the environment. We need holistic food safety, not reductionist manipulated pseudo safety standards which protect corporations not people.

The Health Ministers own remarks make it clear that reductionist “safety standards” do not make Coke Pepsi “safe”. While he declared that pesticide residues were “within safe limits” in bottles tested in Mysore and Gujarat, he also stated that Colas were junk foods and were not safe for health. Safety is more than standards for pesticide residues. And as we have witnessed different labs are giving different results.

To ban or not ban Coke and Pepsi cannot and should not depend only on whether a particular lab does not find particular levels of particular pesticide residues in the soft drinks above permissible limits. The problems with Coke and Pepsi creating a water crisis and a health crisis are separately enough reasons for a ban. Jointly, they make a ban imperative. These are crimes against nature and people. Crimes are determined by their impact, not the “standard” of instruments used for committing a crime. Coke and Pepsi are engaged in the rape of the earth’s aquifers and slow poisoning of our children. And, there is no “safe standard” for rape. No “safe standard” for slow murder. That is why we must ban them from our lives through actions as free and sovereign citizens of a free and sovereign India.

One speech by a Minister influenced by the Cola giants does not give them a “clean chit” as they have claimed. The clean chit must come from free citizens of India. And people of India have not given Coke and Pepsi a clean chit. We must build on the example set by Plachimada and Kerala to make India Coke and Pepsi free to protect our ground water and the health of our future generations.

We must resist any attempt to take away the Constitutional rights of citizens and states to make decisions about the safety of our food as the Food Safety Act 2006 proposes.

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