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Allegations of Pesticides in Coke, Pepsi Create Furor in India - 2003-08-07

In India, beverage giants Coca-Cola and Pepsi are strongly denying allegations that their drinks have high levels of pesticide residue. Both companies strongly deny the charges, but the issue is grabbing headlines in India.

The controversy erupted after the independent Center for Science and Environment alleged that soft drinks sold by the Coca-Cola and Pepsi companies in India had "dangerously" high levels of pesticide residue.

The center's director, Sunita Narain, says tests on popular soft drinks sold in India show that they do not match European or U.S. standards.

"On an average, these bottles contained over 30 times the limit, which has been set by the European Commission for pesticide residue," she said. "It's a serious issue, because as you know, long-term exposure to pesticide can be extremely dangerous for human bodies."

The center accuses the two U.S. companies of not using adequate technology to filter toxins found in India's contaminated ground water. The center says long-term exposure to the residues can damage the nervous and immune systems, or cause cancer.

For once, rivals Coca-Cola and Pepsi have joined hands. The Indian units of both companies say the drinks sold in India match the standards in Western countries; and, they claim their products are safer than other drinks. Coke and Pepsi together account for 90 percent of the carbonated drinks sold in India.

Abhiram Seth, an executive director at PepsiCo in New Delhi, says the company is open to having its products tested by an independent laboratory. He cast doubts on the testing techniques used by the Center of Science and Environment.

"These kind of tests have to be carried out [by] people with years of experience, and invariably, even if one lab does the test, you go to another lab[oratory] for cross validation. We have the data for all our plants, that our water meets the standards even of EU."

As the allegations and denials dominate the headlines, consumers are confused. Some lawmakers have demanded a ban on Coke and Pepsi. Health Minister Sushma Swaraj calls the charges "shocking," and has promised a "comprehensive probe," following an outcry in Parliament.

India's lawmakers are taking no chances. Pending the government inquiry, the Parliament's canteen has taken Coca-Cola and Pepsi off its menu.

Center director Sunita Narain says the government has nobody but itself to blame, because it has not laid down strict enough rules for soft drink manufacturers.

Consumers are showing mixed reactions. Some are not unduly concerned about the charges in a country where water, air and food are often reported to be tainted.

Others are angry that international products they have trusted may be suspect.

The cola companies promise to launch a huge publicity campaigns to address consumer safety concerns in India, where the soft drink market is estimated to be worth $1.2 billion.