Just Chatting with Life

Friday, August 11, 2006

Ho Hum ...and we ban colas !!

There you go, the Kerala government has decreed that as the guardians of public health, they will not allow any of the good citizens of Kerala to drink Coke and Pepsi. But wait a minute, why did they do this. Ah well, you recall CSE (The Centre for Science and Environment), the same organization that had found alarming level of pesticides in Cola in August 2003. Yeah, the same one! Well they just refuse to go away. With a nicely orchestrated media performance, they have once again brought cola majors into limelight. This time they have found an astonishing amount of pesticides which is twenty-four times the normal prescribed level.

When we talk about a level which is twenty four times the normal level, we assume that we know there is a normal level. But is this the case? Lets us examine the facts as put forth by CSE. According to CSE, the level of pesticides in Colas is 11.85 ppb (parts per billion). Now the standard to which they are comparing is not actually a standard, but a proposal for a standard, which is pending before Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS). This proposal states that the level of pesticides should not be more than 0.5 ppb. But at its heart, a proposal is well…a proposal. It is not yet implemented. Hence to proclaim that the cola companies are in the wrong seems to be a bit premature.

Let us talk statistics now. Now BIS may not have standard for Colas, but it does have standards for a lot of common food items. Now these standards specify how much of pesticides you can have in the food items. And believe it or not, the level of pesticides, the prescribed one, that is, is much higher than the levels which CSE found in the colas. For example, the prescribed maximum level of pesticides in one large egg is 1931 ppb, whereas for one cup of tea it is 4668 ppb. This means that to ingest the same amount of pesticides that you would ingest by one cup of tea, you will have to drink an astonishing 394 bottles of Coke. This is a startling statistic. Suddenly, the level of pesticide in a Coke bottle seems pretty insignificant. The same story is repeated for other food products such as rice and milk. And yet, the CSE, the media, and the political parties are targeting the cola companies.

This is not intended to be a defense of the cola companies. But at the same time, we must understand that the CSE findings must be taken with more than one pinch of salt. There are several issues with the CSE report. Consider the validity of the results. There is a National Accreditation Board (NAB) which has accredited about 20 laboratories which are authorized to undertake such tests. You could be forgiven for thinking that surely CSE is accredited by NAB. But the truth is not quite flattering for CSE. They do not have accreditation from NAB. That raises questions about the validity of CSE results. CSE mentions that they have tested the colas according to the US EPA standards. But surprise, the US EPA lacks any such standard. One really wonders how the reports of CSE managed to gain such credence.

Enough of nitpicking. We need to see the larger issues involved. There are two key players in this issue, without whose support, the issue would have died its natural death: the media and the political parties. Both have gained a lot from the issue. The media got an issue which they could sensationalize mindlessly, again, and hence gain that precious viewer attention. And the political parties found a new excuse to make a ruckus and shout slogans against Videshi companies. It is difficult to point out which of the two has behaved more irresponsibly. The sad part is that over the years, we have come to expect this from the political parties. But in some tiny corner of one’s heart, one still hopes that the media is a watchdog. Sadly, the television news channels are hell bent to prove us wrong. And the newspapers don’t want to be left behind. So what we have is the mindless ban by the Kerala government which was undoubtedly prompted by the eagerness to play to the galleries. If the state government is so concerned about the health of its citizens, it would do well to invest in improving the standards of public health in state. But, as it is not half as newsworthy as banning the multinationals coke and Pepsi, the government won’t even think of doing public health. Some parties have found innovative ways to play up the issue. Novel methods such as spraying colas in fields, making animals drink Colas might seem amusing on the Television. But these images hide disturbing truth - that beyond such mindless displays of exhibitionism, the political parties are capable of little else.

So while the Colas face flak once again, while the political parties continue their tamasha, media continues it’s breaking news, CSE finds even more startling results, I will put up my feet on the table and sip my Coke. After all, if so many cups of tea have deposited so much of pesticide in me, what more can one bottle of Coke do?


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