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[NEW DELHI] An Indian parliamentary committee has confirmed allegations by a New Delhi-based nongovernmental organisation that soft drinks made by two international cola giants contain excessively high levels of pesticide residues due to using contaminated ground water.

As a result, the committee has called for a major overhaul of the country's regulatory systems for ensuring food safety, and criticised the Indian health ministry for an unscientific approach towards monitoring water quality.

The 15-member committee, which presented its report in parliament last week, corroborated findings released last year by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) of high levels of pesticide residues in 12 products of PepsiCo and Coca Cola (see Indian row over 'pesticides in soft drinks' claim).

It recommended setting stringent standards for soft drinks, other beverages and foods, and introducing legally enforceable standards for drinking water.

The committee also recommended carrying out a scientific survey and compiling a database on exposure to pesticides through foods, including soft drinks and beverages. It urged that surveillance studies be conducted to identify high-risk areas, seasons, foods and populations. The report suggests that the Indian Council of Medical Research could coordinate all these activities.

"(The) CSE findings are correct on the presence of pesticide residues in carbonated water in respect of three samples each of 12 brand products of PepsiCo and Coca-cola analysed by them," the committee's report said. 

It added that it "appreciate(d) the whistle-blowing act of CSE in alerting the nation to an issue with major implications to food safety, policy formulation, regulatory framework and human and environmental health."

The committee also noted that the two cola companies did not specify the caffeine content of their products, as they do in Western countries. It therefore asked India to follow the global best practice regulations on caffeine in these drinks.

Criticism of the Indian health ministry was based on the fact that it only acknowledged the problem of pesticide residues after CSE had published its findings. This was despite the fact that it is responsible for establishing safety standards for all foods.

Prompted into action by the parliamentary report, the Indian health ministry convened an emergency meeting of the Central Council of Food Safety on Friday (13 February) to finalise a draft document setting out new safety norms for carbonated water — including cola brands. Officials of the health and agriculture ministries have also begun to review standards for permissible levels of pesticide exposure.

If the new regulations are eventually adopted, India will be setting an important precedent. According to CSE, there are currently no standards for pesticide residues in final products such as processed foods anywhere in the world.

"It will be a major lesson for the rest of the developing world", most of whose countries face a problem of groundwater contamination with pesticides, CSE director Sunita Narain told SciDev.Net.

CSE says that most industrialised countries have standards for heavy metals and similar substances in soft drinks. But they have not adopted specific standard for pesticide residues, as the levels of these in both water and agricultural raw commodities are relatively low.

Narain describes the parliamentary report as "the beginning and not the end", and adds that her organisation will campaign vigorously to ensure that the report's recommendations are implemented properly. The episode, she says, highlights the need for Indian scientists to develop "the confidence to engage in societal discourse and be part of these discussions (over public health and environment problems)", rather than being excessively preoccupied with the technical details of analytical methods.

"We are delighted to see the final report," CSE said in a statement. "It provides nothing less than a reform agenda for food safety and water security in the country."

Last year, CSE tested 36 samples of 12 brands of soft drink for some of the most commonly used pesticides in India, including DDT, chlorpyrifos and malathion. It found that they were present in the soft drinks in concentrations that were substantially higher than European Union norms.

However, the government-owned Central Food Technological Research Institute, Mysore, and Central Food Laboratory, in Kolkata, which analysed the same 12 brands sent by the health ministry, denied that the pesticide residues were as high as had been claimed by CSE.

The parliamentary probe followed these two apparently contradictory reports, and the public outcry that the CSE findings had provoked. The parliamentary committee pointed out that all agencies agreed on the presence of pesticides. It said that the differences in the amounts measured could be attributed to differences in where and when the drinks were manufactured, temperature of storage, and analytical techniques.

The committee added, however, that it would not be "fair" to apply the same stringent standards for soft drinks to local fruit juice manufacturers as, it argued, the two global cola giants have access to state-of-the-art technologies, while fruit juices are mainly produced in small and medium labour-intensive companies.

Other key recommendations of the parliamentary report include the modernisation of India's food testing laboratories, the employment of more scientists by the Bureau of Indian Standards, a national conference to discuss results of annual surveys of pesticide residues and water quality, and the annual publication of a status report or white paper on food standards and safety.

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