“We have the right test methodology and the experience,” the director of the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment director Sunita Narain said in an interview Saturday.
“If we can drink them (Coke and Pepsi), we can test them,” she said, adding the centre used an internationally accepted method for its analysis.
However she added the centre “is not worried” if its findings are proved wrong as its aim of focusing attention on India’s lax nutrition safety standards has been achieved.
“When we released our study on pesticides in soft drinks, our objective was clear—we needed to prod action on regulations,” she said.
The centre sparked uproar and drew international headlines with a study it released this month claiming high levels of toxic chemicals in 57 drink products taken from 25 Indian Coca-Cola and PepsiCo plants.
The report prompted southern Kerala state to ban Coke and Pepsi drinks while five other states barred them from sale in schools and government offices.
A national ban was demanded by the federal opposition while some protesters went on cola-bottle smashing sprees.
The cola giants shot back with studies they say show their beverages comply not only with proposed new Indian safety standards but those of the European Union—the world’s toughest.
They also challenged the centre’s test methods, calling them ”prone to generating false results.”
The companies, which control 80 percent of India’s soft drinks market, have also taken out a slew of newspaper advertisements to reassure consumers the beverages are safe.
But on Saturday, the southern state of Karnataka filed a case against Coca-Cola under the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, accusing it of selling products with pesticide levels beyond permissible limits.
State Health Minister R. Ashok said government-supervised tests at a “well-equipped” private lab found Coke products contained a pesticide called malathion which can cause breathing problems, vomiting and other ill effects.
The minister said other soft drinks sold in the state would also be tested for pesticides but did not mention Pepsi by name.
The centre said its study found Coca-Cola and Pepsi drinks made in India contained pesticide traces an average 24 times higher than allowed by new safety standards developed by the Bureau of Indian Standards but not yet law.
Such findings are “clearly unacceptable as we know pesticides are tiny toxins and impact (on) our bodies over time,” said Narain.
The US government and business leaders, meanwhile, have warned of a potential fallout in investment in the booming country from the controversy which has reminded investors that India—despite 15 years of economic reforms—remains an unpredictable place to do business.
It is the second time the centre has taken aim at the soft drink multinationals. A similar study by the centre in 2003 reported pesticide levels in the cola companies’ drinks that exceeded international standards and spotlighted lax food safety laws.
Afterwards, the new rules were drafted but Narain said the government has been dragging its heels in implementing them.
At the moment, there is only a pesticide standard for bottled water.
And soft drink makers are only required to test the quality of water going into their beverages. They are not obliged to test their finished products.
“The (finished product) regulations are already finalised, they just need to agree to put them into practice,” Narain said.
She hoped the soft drink standards would be the first step toward regulation of processed foods that Indians are starting to increasingly consume as affluence grows in the country of more than one billion people.
“It’s about safeguarding our health. People in India worry about what’s in what they consume,” she said.