Govt. organisations differ over new quality norms for soft drinks

NEW DELHI OCT. 10. The introduction of new quality standard for soft drinks and other beverages may be further delayed as the Joint Parliamentary Committee set up to look into the issue is unlikely to finish its work before the winter session of Parliament.

Speaking to presspersons at the end of its second round of hearing here today, the Chairman of the Committee, Sharad Pawar, said the work of the panel would spill over into December as many organisations, including agricultural universities, had represented that they also be heard. But the JPC would not be able to hold any hearing next month since many members would be busy with the Assembly elections.

He said the results of the tests conducted by the Centre for Science and Environment had to be assessed by experts. The panel had short-listed three experts and their names had to be approved by the Lok Sabha Speaker. The Speaker is now in Dhaka attending a meeting of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and is expected to give his approval after his return. "The issue is technical. We need the help of experts. The CSE report would be given to them for their assessment," Mr. Pawar said.

Meanwhile, the second round of hearing brought to the open differences within the Government over introduction of new standards. Making separate presentations before the panel, the representatives of the Ministry of Food Processing Industries and Agriculture and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA) under the Commerce Ministry complained that the new norms proposed by the Health Ministry would adversely affect the interests of not only the industry but also the consumers.

Officials of the Food Processing Industries Ministry said a large number of food processing units in the country would not be able to meet the proposed standards as they were too stringent. A lot of effort would have to be made to develop the necessary technology to bring down the concentration of pesticide residues and heavy metals to the required levels. Consequently, there would be a sharp increase in the prices of the finished products, thus adversely affecting both the industry and the consumers. In addition, the farmers supplying fruits and vegetables to the industry would be put to great difficulty as they would have to make extra effort to grow products which met the required standards.

APEDA, in turn, protested that the proposed norms would have an adverse impact on the export of processed food products and said that it should not be forgotten that the European Union, on whose standards the new norm were based, adopted double standards to protest the interests of its industry and farmers and used safety and hygiene standards as a non-tariff barrier. For instance, it pointed out, the maximum limit set for pesticide concentration was 0.25 per cent for beet sugar, and five per cent for cane sugar, mainly because beetroot was grown more than sugarcane in their region.

Defending the findings of its tests conducted on 12 samples of soft drinks, the CSE opposed the proposal to set uniform norms for both soft drinks and beverages such as fruit juices as they were not on the same footing. The standards, it said, should be laid depending on the nutritional value of the item. The CSE also complained that presently there was no regulation on water used by food processing units, and said there should be stringent norms for water.

At the meeting, several JPC members questioned the Health Ministry for coming out with a draft notification on the new standards, when the JPC had been constituted to look into the issue. They also complained that the Ministry had not followed proper procedures before issuing it. In particular, they pointed out that it had not consulted the Central Committee on Food Standards and had conducted the series of mandatory studies, which included assessment of prevalent soil and environmental conditions, consumption pattern of food items in different regions and risk analysis based on scientific principles. They also wanted to know why the Health Ministry had proposed standards for finished products when the international practice was to set norms only for raw materials.

Mr. Pawar said the next round of meetings would be held on October 20 and 21. The JPC would hear representatives of the Central Food Technological Research Institute, Mysore, and the Central Food Laboratory, Kolkata, on October 20 and the three apex chambers of commerce, CII, FICCI, and ASSOCHAM, on October 21.

Replying to a query, he said the JPC was not contemplating any interim report because of the delay in its work. He clarified that the implementation of the other notification issued with regard to new standards for bottled water would not be stalled, as it dealt with a different issue. It could come into effect from January 1, as proposed.