Pesticide Scare Cripples Coke and Pepsi in India

In India, several states have banned the sale of Coke and Pepsi after a group called The Center for Science and Environment said the soft drinks contain unacceptably high levels of pesticide. The national government of India has said the Center's data is flawed. But the state governments continue to ban the products.

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A state government in India is maintaining a ban on the production and sale of Coca Cola and Pepsi products.

Environmental groups charge that drinks produced by these two companies contain residues of pesticide. Coke and Pepsi have denied these charges, and India's health ministry has also dismissed the allegations. NPR's Philip Reeves has more from New Delhi.

PHILIP REEVES reporting:

It's another stifling monsoon day in New Delhi. The men selling drinks on the streets are enjoying a busy time. But life's not so easy for everyone in the business.

Coca Cola and Pepsi, by far the biggest players in the Indian market, face allegations that unsafe levels of pesticide residues have been found by tests on samples of their products. Their accusers are a pressure group called The Centre for Science and Environment, or CSE, headed by Sunita Narain.

Ms. SUNITA NARAIN (Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi): Our concern was that if we are finding pesticides in a product that is supposedly clean and safe, it means there is widespread contamination in India.

REEVES: Seven of India's 28 states have imposed restrictions on Coke and Pepsi. Most of these are limited, such as a ban on selling the drinks near schools or hospitals. But the 33 million residents of the Marxist-run southern state of Kerala can no longer buy Coke or Pepsi in their shops.

India accounts for a tiny part of the two corporations' global volume: just 1 percent in the case of Coca Cola. Yet marketing consultant Tripak Nakani(ph) says the pesticide controversy is significant, as India and China are vital growth markets in the future.

Mr. TRIPAK NAKANI (Marketing Consultant): That is because growth in developed countries has come down significantly. Given the population in these countries, and the growing economies of both these countries, they're very, very critical to both Coke and Pepsi.

REEVES: The cola giants are fighting back. They've placed advertisements in the Indian media saying their drinks are completely safe and meet the most stringent standards.

Kenth Kaerhoeg, communications director for Coca Cola Asia, says Coke has test results from world-renowned independent laboratories to prove there's no pesticide contamination.

Mr. KENTH KAERHOEG (Communications Director, Coca Cola Corporation): We are completely confident in the safety of our soft drinks in India. We know that they are produced to the same level of purity when it comes to pesticides as the European criteria for bottled water.

REEVES: Pepsi Cola, India, says the same.

The cola giants have India's central government on their side. India's health ministry says it has consulted experts who found no conclusive proof of pesticide contamination. However, this hasn't silenced the controversy. India's government still has no hard and fast national protocol regulating safe pesticide residues in soft drinks - even though the CSE made similar claims of pesticide contamination in colas several years ago.

The cola companies say they're willing to help. This is also precisely what Sunita Narain of the CSE is campaigning for.

Ms. NARAIN: We need a standard, a limit, which defines what is the safe level of pesticides that you can have in colas.

REEVES: Until that standard is established, Narain says the CSE's campaign will continue, no matter how much pressure it faces.

Ms. NARAIN: Are you expecting us to back off just because they're two companies, and they're big companies?

REEVES: Nor will the cola giants back off.

As their racy television ads make clear, they're always eager to sell their wares to the world's second-most populous country.

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Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi.

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And I'm Renee Montagne.

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