The cola majors are in the dock again on the same charge the pesticide content in their beverages being dangerously excessive

vis-à-vis

the internationally-accepted safety norms.

That they have not dragged the NGO levelling this charge to court is revealing. Incidentally, it was quite inexplicable to see a representative of the pesticide industry taking up cudgels for the soft-drink majors saying there is no empirical evidence linking death of people with pesticides contained in soft-drinks which according to him is admittedly present in greater or lesser quantum.

Equally ludicrous are the parallels being drawn between other foodstuff, mainly vegetables; why target the cola giants alone when others are equally guilty of selling contaminated products?

Not comparable to other foodstuff

A vegetable vendor and a cola major do not bear comparison. Coke is one of the top brand names in the world and logic demands that one enjoying such envious popularity the world over should not allow anything to sully its image even if the price for safeguarding its reputation is so high that it threatens to gnaw at its profits.

A few years ago the balance-sheet of Coke's Indian arm was bleeding and by its own admission it was a result of the battle with its arch rival Pepsi in wooing celebrities (rather than customers).

A vegetable vendor can argue with some justification that he lacks the resources to wash the vegetables in order to remove from it the last residue of pesticides.

But a numero uno brand cannot possibly proffer the argument that the blame for the contamination should not be laid at the doors of the soft-drink major but on the quality of groundwater or the sugar that is available across the country.

It should not be too much for a brand with colossal resources at its command if one looks at its global balance-sheet to invest in facilities that addresses public health concerns.

Address the health concerns

In the context of another public health related problem, smoking, it was suggested by the author in these very columns last year that cigarettes should be stubbed out completely so as to be a lasting solution to the vexed problem.

Such a drastic remedy is not warranted in the context of soft-drinks though some of the health activists and nutritionists would settle for nothing else. Their contention is that there is absolutely no nutritional value in them. Unless it is conclusively proved that like cigarettes, soft-drinks are also a health hazard, such a drastic course would be difficult to sustain especially in a liberal democracy and economy.

But the industry should address public health concerns by investing in plants that make their products as safe as possible even if that means cutting down on the advertising budget.

Who will pick the tab?

The Government, in fact, should make this a precondition for bottlers be it of water or soft-drinks seeking to advertise their wares by making suitable changes in the food safety regulations. Who will pick up the tab the brand-owner or the various Indian bottlers is a matter to be decided by the two across the table.

(The author is a New Delhi-based chartered accountant.)

S. Murlidharan

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated August 9, 2006)
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