Peddling Poison: Coca Cola and Pepsi Must Go!

THE year: 1970. In the South American country of Chile, Salvador Allende had just been elected as president but was yet to be confirmed and sworn in constitutionally. Allende had won in the face of the whole economic might of US corporations and the US government, who had funded the campaign of his

opponent. Richard Nixon, then president of the United states received a personal call from Donald Kendall, Chairman of Pepsi Co. This had not been difficult to set up, given that Richard Nixon had formerly served the company as its corporate attorney. Kendall arranged for the owner of the company’s Chilean bottling operation to meet National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger on September 15, 1970. Hours later, Nixon called in his CIA chief, Richard Helms, and, according to Helms’s handwritten notes, ordered the CIA to prevent Allende’s inauguration as president of Chile.


The CIA swung into action. The nature of its operation can be gauged from the “Eyes only, restricted handling, secret” message to US station chief of the CIA, Santiago. From CIA headquarters on October 16, 1970. The message said, “It is the firm and continuing policy that Allende be overthrown by a

coup… Please review all your present and possibly new activities to include propaganda, black operations, surfacing of intelligence or disinformation, personal contacts, or anything else your imagination can conjure…” The attempt in 1970 failed as the CIA found it difficult to sway the Chilean army. But they persisted, egged on by persistent prompting from US multinationals like PepsiCo, ITT (the forerunner of AT&T) and copper multinationals.

Finally in 1973 they engineered the assassination of Allende. American interests were protected once again and the Chilean people paid for their “mistake” with more than 15,000 dead, more than 30,000 prisoners, more than 100,000 brutally  tortured, more than 200,000 dismissed for political reasons, and more than 30,000 students expelled from the university by the military that took over.


Fast forward to the decade of the nineties. The US is now engaged in subverting the democratic process in another South American country – Colombia. And what better ally can they have than another soft drink giant — Coca Cola. For almost a decade now Coca Cola has been working closely with the mafia and criminal gangs in the country to terrorise its workers.

Since 1996, eight workers and union activists from Coca-Cola plants in Colombia have been murdered by anti-union paramilitary groups. Managers of the Coca-Cola bottling plants in Colombia have allowed, and encouraged,

right-wing paramilitaries and government security forces to threaten, detain, kidnap, and murder union activists.

Isidro Segundo Gil was killed inside the Coca-Cola bottling plant in Carepa by right-wing paramilitaries on December 5, 1996. Isidro was the president of the local union, and was involved with negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement with the company. Four days later, the paramilitaries entered the plant and gave the union members until 4 P.M. to resign from the union. Fifty workers signed identical resignation letters and the local union was disbanded. Prior to Isidro’s murder, the plant manager boasted that he had given an order to the paramilitaries to destroy the union. The most recent killing was of Adolfo Munera, who was shot to death in the doorway of his mother’s house in Barranquilla on August 31, 2002. Adolfo was murdered just nine days after the Constitutional Court of Colombia decided to review his case against Coca-Cola.


The year: 2003. The scene shifts to the corridors of the World Health Organisation headquarters in Geneva. This time Pepsi and Coca Cola are working in tandem to prevent the publication of a report by the WHO on unhealthy nutrition. The release of the draft prompts them to threaten Gro Harlem Brundtland (then Director General, WHO) in a letter (co authored by the sugar and other food multinationals) with the following words: “We will use all possible methods to throw light on the questionable character of this report …Tax payers’ money should not be wasted on supporting non-scientific surveys”.

At the heart of the controversy is the WHO’s report on obesity and nutrition. The report urges governments to clamp down on TV advertisements pushing “sugar-rich items” to impressionable thirsty youngsters and consider levying heavier taxes on them. It suggests that school vending machines should be turned into scrap metal. The WHO is concerned about the rising tide of obesity that is killing and debilitating millions in rich countries such as the UK and US and that is now edging into poor countries to co-exist obscenely with malnutrition. The soft drinks industry, appalled at this “interference” with its global dominance, disputes not only the scientific evidence but the WHO’s right even to raise issues of taxes and advertising.

Pepsi and Coke received strong support for their stand from an expected quarter. The US government registered a formal objection to the WHO draft report, arguing that it had not proved its case. It said the report found “insufficient evidence to conclude a causal link between soft drinks consumption and weight gain exists” and demanded that the offending words be “deleted or significantly revised”.

The above are but a few glimpses from the murky history of the soft drink giants, Pepsi and Coca Cola. Should we really be surprised when we learn from a study recently published by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) that they have been serving us soft drinks laced with deadly pesticides? Let us not forget that Coca Cola started as a firm that peddled drugs! Till 1906 it is officially acknowledged that their formula contained cocaine. The two, who today symbolize the “free world” and the “American way of life” have for a century carved out an empire by marketing junk that is bad for health – pesticides notwithstanding. They have even acquired a philanthropic sheen. They fund “social causes” and a member of Coca Cola’s board of  directors sits on the board of the Ford Foundation, which appears to have, in recent years, built a reputation for funding “radical” causes!

From drug peddling to philanthropy – it has been a long and eventful journey!


The CSE study itself is a damning piece of evidence that suggests corporate irresponsibility and double standards. It found that all the different brands sold by these companies—Pepsi, Mountain Dew, Diet Pepsi, Miranda orange, Miranda lemon, Blue Pepsi, 7-Up, Coca-Cola, Fanta, Limca, Sprite and Thums Up—contained the deadly insecticide lindane which damages the body’s central nervous system and has the potential to induce cancers.

Coca-Cola, for example, was found to contain lindane in a concentration of 0.0035 milligram per litre—a level which is 35 times higher than the European Economic Commission (EEC) limit. Similarly, highly toxic DDT residues, almost 45 times higher than EEC limits, were found in Pepsi’s Miranda Lemon. Repeated exposure to pesticides such as DDT, malathion and lindane can cause severe harm, ranging from cancer, liver and kidney damage, to birth defects and damage to the immune system. The fact that these p esticides came from the ground water used in the manufacture of Coke and Pepsi do not in any way absolve them of responsibility.

But the reaction of the Indian government to the report by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) on pesticide content in Coke and Pepsi speaks volumes for its supposed concern for the health of the people. The emphasis of all the pronouncements have been on testing the soft drinks for pesticide content. In other words, if the companies clean up their act, it will be business as usual. No one seems to be prepared to question the rationale for allowing these products in the Indian market in the first place—with or without pesticides.

The reaction from the liberalisation brigade and their poster boys has been nauseating. After the study was published, a very familiar anchor in one English news channel was seen smirking at and hectoring MPs for having dared to ban Pepsi and Coke from parliament. The same news channel ran a programme

titled: “Villains or Victims”! Pepsi and Coke as victims should qualify as the news scoop of the millennium! In most metropolitan newspapers the story had vanished from the front page within a couple of days. Big money has obviously been doing some plain talking! Lest we forget – the Indian soft

drink industry is worth Rs 6,000 crore, and 85 per cent of the market is controlled by Pepsi and Coca Cola. They are among the biggest advertisers on Television and in the print media. We can soon expect to see planted stories appearing on their behalf in the media.

Coke and Pepsi must go not just because they contain liberal dollops of pesticides. They must go because of their track record globally and in this country. They must go because even minus pesticides, they are junk and harmful for the health of those who consume them.

In India, both these companies have bought acres of prime land to set up their manufacturing facilities. In Maharashtra and many other regions their operations have starved the local population of water. Thousands have been agitating against this practice of the Indian government, which has sold the water rights of the people to corporates like Pepsi and Coke. Recently the BBC broke a story that is even more damning. It now transpires that as a philanthropic gesture, Coke in Kerala had been supplying, free of cost, sludge from their factory to be used as fertiliser to local farmers. The catch in this tale of corporate munificence is that this sludge is laced with cadmium, a deadly poison! The Kerala State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) has confirmed the presence of the carcinogenic metal cadmium in waste material generated by the Coca-Cola plant at Plachimada in Kerala’s Palakkad district. The sludge being supplied to farmers was found to contain 201.8 mg of cadmium per kg of dry weight, against the tolerable limit of 50 mg. The factory has been asked to stop supplying the sludge as fertiliser to

farmers in the locality, and to keep the material in ‘seepage-proof’ conditions.


Let us now turn to something about Coke and Pepsi that is rarely discussed. Mercifully they do not contain cocaine any more, and one assumes that they do not deliberately add pesticides. But what they contain is almost as harmful for health. The first problem is that soft drinks provide no nutritional value, but supply “empty” calories – that is just plain sugar (a bottle of coke contains the equivalent of 11 teaspoons of sugar). This is a deadly combination when consumed by people with sedentary (not active) lifestyles. Dr Brundtland, while releasing the WHO report on obesity and nutrition said: “We have known for a long time that foods high in saturated fats, sugars, and salt, are unhealthy; that we are, globally, increasing our intake of energy-dense, nutritionally poor food as our lives become increasingly sedentary ….. And that these factors – together with tobacco use – are the leading causes of the great surge we have seen in the incidence of chronic diseases”. Even in the US, there is today a major public outcry against the promotion of soft drinks. Los Angles, for example, is proposing to ban soft drink in all schools from 2004.

Another active ingredient in Coke is phosphoric acid. It is highly acidic, with a pH value of 2.8. It is thus highly corrosive and can dissolve a nail in about 4 days. One can imagine what that would do to the teeth of children who consume Coke in large quantities. Phosphoric acid also dissolves out calcium from bones and is a major contributor to the rising increase in osteoporosis – a disease characterized by thinning of bones that leads to easy fractures Studies have also implicated phosphoric acid as a causative

agent of kidney stones.

This then is what the votaries of “free market” want protected. Coke and Pepsi typify the consumerist culture being promoted in the country today.  They must go because they are poisoning a whole generation of children and young adults. They must go because they ravage the land where it is produced. They must go because they are symbols of all that is evil in the corporate world.