This so called pesticide cocktail in major colas is a cocktail indeed – a cocktail of politics, psuedo science, posturing and bad economics.
The background: The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) claimed, in August 2003, that colas contained unacceptably high levels of pesticides. This caused a furore, with a major backlash against Coke and Pepsi. A Joint Parliamentary Committe was formed to probe the issue, and to see how to best regulate the issue.
Three years hence, CSE have released another study (almost to the day, funnily enough), claiming that levels of pesticide in colas are still high, they are dangerous, and that the government and administration has been lethargic on this front, and not implemented standards. Cola firms continue to wreak havoc on social health and well-being.
This debate has many different aspects, levels and sub-texts, but a few key points:
1) There is massive, widespread adulteration in virtually every food item consumed today in India. The levels of pesticide in coffee is 190,000 times, and in apples, 100,000 times, according to some estimates. By contrast, the levels in colas are twenty-four times.
2. One also needs to examine where the adulteration is coming from. The common perception is that the contamination is at the ground water level, and the colas are contaminated, albeit very minutely, due to the water content. However, this is far from the truth. Both Pepsi and Coke’s bottled water products, Aquafina and Kinley have not been found to contain pesticide. The pesticide content is due to the sugar, which is contaminated, like virtually every other agricultural product.
3. The other point raised is about norms or standards. The point I would like to make is that no matter which standards India follows (or formulates in future), the colas are the least contaminated, amongst all food and beverage products.
Up until now, the international norm is to fix the impurity content on the raw product. This covers all products in the market. CSE has claimed it would be better if pesticide levels were fixed for finished products, and labelled. It also claims that the government has not done so, due to pressure from industry.
This is a serious allegation, and such allegations are fairly easy to make. However, the truth is that, given that the worldwide precedent of fixing the standards on raw products,the health ministry has been handling this issue carefully, and not just rushing into a judgement.
4. I also find very strange, on part of the CSE, to use statistics for shock value. The CSE report has claimed that “pesticide content in colas are 24 times the acceptable levels”. 24 times of “what” acceptable level ? Parts per million ? Parts per billion ?
This might be argued to be freedom of expression, but when it comes to presenting scientific data to the general public, to my mind, this amounts to wilful misrepresentation.
Update1: Kishore Asthana has studied the cola controversy and done an analysis of the issue. Reproduced below are his views:
1. What is the big fuss about that Parliament is debating the issue and Indian states are banning Colas?
Let us see what are the implications for the customer if we assume that CSE figures of pesticides in Colas are correct:
Colas do indeed have pesticides, which is a fact CSE never tires of repeating. However, the quantum is so low compared to the other things that we consume, that the pesticides in Colas can be ignored, even assuming that CSE figures are correct. The following table shows how many bottles of Cola you have to drink to get the same amount of pesticide as you get by eating one egg, drinking a cup of tea, consuming a handful of rice or eating a couple of apples. These calculations assume that pesticides in Colas are as per CSE findings and the pesticides in other things are as per the maximum permissible standards as defined in the Rule 65 of the PFA rules 1955 of the Government of India. In the case of Meat, ithe permissible pesticide level is as per E.U. norms as we could not find any Indian standards for pesticides in Meat.
Column A gives the equivalent Cola bottles if we assume that Colas are adhering to the proposed BIS norm of 0.5 ppb. Column B is the no. of equivalent bottles if we assume that the CSE findings are accurate.
|To ingest same amount|
|If you consume||of pesticide you have to drink|
|300 gms of||=||(No. of 300 ml Cola Bottles)|
|As per CSE|
|1 Large Egg (100gms)||=||3,853||163||bottles of cola|
|1 Cup Tea (100 ml)||=||9,347||394||bottles of cola|
|A handful of rice (300gm)||=||34,180||1,442||bottles of cola|
|Two apples (300 gms)||=||30,200||1,274||bottles of cola|
|1 Large glass of milk||=||6,560||277||bottles of cola|
|1 Large glass of lassi||=||6,560||277||bottles of cola|
|300 gm rabdi||=||6,560||277||bottles of cola|
|3 pieces of meat||=||20,140||850||bottles of cola|
The above is based on the specifications given below. It should be noted that there are no standards for pesticides in Colas in India as yet and the figure of 0.5 ppb is given only as a proposal pending with the government. All other figures are from Government of India’s Rule 65, PFA Rules 1955.
|Other than Cola, The figures are from PFA Rules 1955|
As you can see from the first chart, we are all wasting valuable time and effort on the wrong thing. Our focus should be on reducing pesticides in egg, tea, milk and other consumables, including ground water, which affect all of us. If someone tells you that if you drink one cup of tea, it will give you as much pesticide as 394 cups of cola, which one do you think would be the safer beverage? And are we focusing on tea? On eggs? On fruit or milk? No. CSE and our Parliament is busy trashing the drink which has the least amount of pesticide amongst all the things we consume. This is reason enough for us to put on our Sanity & Balance cape and jump into the fray.
2. Is CSE qualified to undertake the tests?
This is the second critical question. To the best of our understanding, there are only about 20 laboratories accredited by the National Accreditation Board to undertake tests. The CSE Lab did not have this NAB accreditation three years back and does not appear to have it now. When we personally asked Ms. Sunita Narain about NAB accreditation after the NDTV program yesterday they tried to divert us by saying that they have ISO 9000 accreditation. Even a travel agency can get ISO 9000 accreditation and it does not qualify them as a certified laboratory. When we insisted, she said she was too busy talking to other people to answer our question (a simple yes or no would have sufficed, but, obviously, when you do not have certification, you do not want to admit it).
3. Should we then believe their results?
Will we go for a blood test to a laboratory which is not licenced by the government? The CSE lab does not have NAB accreditation. Why should we listen to CSE at all?
Dr. Khandal, the highly reputed Director of the Sri Ram Laboratories has, in a TV interview categorically said that the equipment used at CSE cannot measure the level of Malathion which CSE claims to have measured with it. He also said that these results had not been re-validated by doing other tests, as was the norm. As such, the tests were not to be taken at face value.
Dr. Khandal then said that CSE have mentioned that they have used U.S. EPA protocols to test Colas. He pointed out that EPA has no protocols for Colas. They only have a protocol to test water. He said that if CSE has used this protocol to measure the pesticides in Colas then it is erronious, as the matrix of the test sample changes with the addition of the other ingredients and the protocol for testing water cannot be used for testing Colas. He said that test protocols for Milk cannot be used for testing butter. The CSE representative at this TV interview had no answer to Dr. Khandal’s questions. Based on all this, should we believe Dr. Khandal or Mrs. Sunita Narain, who does not have any qualification as a scientist?
The test results of the well-known and NAB accredited Central Food Research Institute Laboratory in Mysore and the Central Food Laboratory, Kolkatta show levels of pesticide in Colas which are very different from the results given by the unaccredited CSE Laboratory. Which one should we believe?
In an NDTV program yesterday, Ms. Narain said that the sample size of foreign Colas tested by CSE was just 2 bottles. As the scientists on the panel pointed out, on this basis she is not really qualified to make any comments at all about pesticides in foreign Colas vis a vis Indian Colas. Any good High School science student can tell you that the sample of two bottles is not a meaningful sample size, but CSE has no hesitation in announcing their comparison based on an analysis of a mere two bottles.
Update 2:Gautam John has a post on this subject on his blog.