BVO: Modern India’s First Big Food Scare

The recent potassium bromate controversy put many Indians off their daily bread for a while, but it was not the first time that a bromine compound had rocked the country. In the late 1980s, when we were a far less health-conscious nation, a food additive called BVO (brominated vegetable oil) made newspaper headlines, and figured in parliamentary debates and school tiffin talk alike.

BVO was an emulsifier/stabiliser used in orange- and lemon-flavoured sodas like Gold Spot and Limca those days. An emulsion is a mixture of two or more liquids that normally do not mix with each other. Fat floats on water, but milk is a stable blend of the two. Added to soft drinks, BVO kept the water and flavouring substances in Limca, for instance, from separating.

But there were doubts about BVO’s safety. Some researchers said it could cause cancer, others linked it to memory loss, and skin and nerve disorders. United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization had recommended long-term studies on the chemical to establish its adverse effects.

But there were doubts about BVO’s safety. Some researchers said it could cause cancer, others linked it to memory loss, and skin and nerve disorders.

In 1988, the developed world was divided over BVO’s safety. The US, Canada and Australia allowed its use while West Germany (the Wall was still standing), Japan and the UK had banned it. The irrepressible Subramanian Swamy raised a pointed question about BVO in Parliament on August 8, 1989: “Whether government are aware that citrus-flavoured aerated cold drinks contain carcinogenic brominated vegetable oil?”

On April 15, 1988, India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare had already removed BVO from the list of permitted food emulsifiers and stabilisers, but as the industry was not ready for the change, it was decided to defer the ban by two years.

So April 15, 1990 was the last day when BVO was legally added to soft drinks in India. Of course, its use did not stop immediately.

April 15, 1990 was the last day when BVO was legally added to soft drinks in India. Of course, its use did not stop immediately.

When officers from Delhi administration’s Department of Prevention of Food Adulteration raided four bottling factories on April 17, 19 and 30, they found BVO in two samples of Gold Spot (the zing thing) and (lime ’n’ lemony) Limca — both brands owned by Parle (Exports) Private Limited. The foul samples were found at Delhi Bottling Co. on Shivaji Marg and Pearl Drinks, Lawrence Road, in the capital.

Parle denied it was still using BVO, and published newspaper advertisements claiming Limca and Gold Spot were clean. The matter reached Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Commission. On May 22, 1990, MRTPC told Parle to stop using BVO and ordered an investigation into the conduct of soft drink makers.

A headline in the July 7, 1990 edition of The Hindustan Times announced the verdict: “Limca ad false, says MRTPC”. A day earlier, MRTPC had ordered Parle to stop the false and misleading advertisements. Still, Limca ads continued on the national broadcaster Doordarshan.

Asked about it, the government came up with a typically hogwash reply: MRTPC had not issued any instructions to Doordarshan and “advertisements of soft drinks, including Limca, are being telecast on Doordarshan only after obtaining a written undertaking supported with documentary proof from the clients that these do not contain BVO.”

Parle’s rival firm Campa Beverages/Pure Drinks escaped flak after the ban, as MRTPC observed: “the products of the respondents do not contain any BVO”.

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