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Coke, Pepsi scramble on caramel issue

Surajeet Dasgupta & Viveat Susan Pinto  |  New Delhi/ Mumbai 

Implications well beyond cola market; demands for similar enforcement here of new US standard

Coca-Cola India will import caramel made through a modified process from its international suppliers to allay any fear that excessive drinking of colas could have an adverse impact on health. However, no deadline for the change has been fixed by the soft drinks major.

The move follows a study released last week in the US by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a watchdog group, which said it found unsafe levels of the chemical 4-methylimidazole, or 4-MI, in cans of Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola, besides other beverage brands. High levels of the chemical have been linked to cancer in animals.

In January this year, 4-MI was added to the list of chemicals covered by California’s Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, also known as Proposition 65. The alternative was to print a warning in the cans that it could lead to cancer.

Both Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have agreed to use a modified process for producing caramel, by changing the catalyst used to burn sugar, in California to comply with standards there. Coke has said that eventually, the modified caramel is to be used in the entire US and the rest of the world. The Indian unit has not indicated a schedule for usage of the caramel made through a different process.

A statement from the company said, “Issues related to logistics and supply are key factors that we continue to work on.” Sources in the company say it could take some months before the change is made. They also said it would require a person drinking 2,900 cans every day for 70 years for it to have any adverse impact.

PepsiCo India said it was awaiting directions from its parent in New York on the matter. This will be received by tomorrow evening, officials said. A company spokesperson said, “PepsiCo is committed to providing 100 per cent safe products that are of the highest standards and we are in compliance with all Indian standards and regulations.”

Double standards?
However environmental watchdog bodies here say the Californian standards should be imposed immediately in India. Sunita Narain, director-general of the Centre for Science & Environment (CSE), considered an CSPI equivalent in India, said the cola majors had double standards. “Why the delay in India?” she asks. “Both the are powerful in the US. And, yet, the Californian government has prescribed this standard there. They wouldn’t have done so without an internal study of their own. I don’t understand what prevents our own Indian government from issuing a similar dictate. Why be so weak in the face of these

This is not the first instance when the cola majors have found themselves in the eye of a storm over their products. In 2003 and 2006, CSE had said there were high levels of pesticides in both Coke and Pepsi in India, leading to an uproar in Parliament and a decline in sales of the products for the two

While the caramel issue has again brought the spotlight on these firms, the ingredient itself is used in a large number of products, including pastries, cakes, confectionary, chocolates, ice-creams, breads and biscuits. Soft drink experts say it is unfair only to attack only these two companies and similar standards should be forced on others, too. Officials at Cadbury-Kraft, Britannia and Parle Products were not immediately available for their comments. But experts say if global caramel manufacturers have been told to alter their production processes by one set of users, they will have to eventually do so for other users to avoid run-ins with regulatory authorities.

Caramel is one of the oldest food colouring matters used in foods and beverages in the world. The process of making caramel involves removing the residual water from natural sugar by heating.

First Published: Mon, March 12 2012. 00:29 IST
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