Coke & Pepsi in India

Today, more from the world of product safety. This time the story is about Coke and Pepsi, and allegations that the versions of their products manufactured in India contain unacceptably high levels of pesticides.

See this story, from the NY Times: For 2 Giants of Soft Drinks, a Crisis in a Crucial Market

TWO of the world’s biggest brand names, known for wooing customers around the world, are facing a credibility crisis in one of their crucial emerging markets.

The Center for Science and the Environment announced in August that drinks manufactured by Coca-Cola and PepsiCo in India contained on average more than 24 times the safe limits of pesticides, which could come from sugar, water and other ingredients.

When those reports appeared on the front pages of newspapers in India, Coke and Pepsi executives were confident that they could handle the situation. But they stumbled.

See also this version of the story, from ABC News: Indian States Reiterate Coke, Pepsi Ban

From what I’ve read so far, there is at least some doubt about just what the pesticide levels are in Indian Coke and Pepsi, and how those levels compare to the pesticide levels in other beverages Indians consume. It may be a while before clear scientific evidence emerges.

So, let’s assume for the sake of argument that the pesticide levels in Indian Coke & Pepsi aren’t excessive (relative to what’s considered “normal” in India). That would suggeest that Coke & Pepsi haven’t done anything wrong in marketing their products. This leaves Coke & Pepsi with two interesting questions, as far as ethics goes.

1) How the heck did corporate relations with the public and with state governments in India evolve in such a way that the immediate reaction in this case was to mistrust Coke & Pepsi? What past behaviour — either by these two companies, or by Western companies in general — led to this? One matter to consider: as several news stories have pointed out, India is awash in pesticides (anyone remember Bhopal?) See any reason for mistrust, here? So, there’s a past to consider. (Notice also that — giving Coke & Pepsi the benefit of the doubt again, here — these 2 companies might be paying for misdeeds committed by other Western companies in the past.

2) Even if Coke & Pepsi have done nothing unethical, here, they still need to think about the future. What kinds of actions now will allow the Indian public to trust them in the future? Feeling like they’ve been wronged by the public, by government officials, or by NGO’s is one thing. But these companies still can behave either better or worse, and will some day get to look back at this event, either with pride or with shame. That choice is still up to them.

Relevant Books:
The New Face of Environmental Management in India
Environmental Justice in India
India Business: Finding Opportunities in This Big Emerging Market
The Real Thing: Truth and Power at the Coca-Cola Company
Pepsi; 100 Years
Empires of Industry: Cola Wars (DVD)

[And thanks to Genetics & Ethics for the suggestion.]

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