updated 8/23/2006 9:36:32 AM ET 2006-08-23T13:36:32

India’s Health Ministry on challenged data from a private research body that found high levels of pesticide contamination in soft drinks sold by Coca-Cola India and PepsiCo India.

A committee appointed by the ministry said the residue data reported by the Center for Science and Environment in New Delhi was flawed.

“The sampling method doesn’t have a scientific and statistically valid basis,” the committee said Tuesday, adding it didn’t find “the conclusions of the research body to be correctly inferred.”

Earlier this month, the Center for Science and Environment said tests conducted on 57 samples of soft drinks sold by Coca-Cola India and PepsiCo India contained high levels of pesticide residue.

Several Indian states have since banned the sale of Coke, Pepsi, Sprite and other soft drinks in schools and government offices. The southern state of Kerala imposed a total ban on sale and production of the drinks.

The CSE, meanwhile, criticized the government committee’s findings, saying its tests were sponsored by Coca-Cola at a lab in Britain.

“The expert committee has used the Coca-Cola-sponsored British laboratory findings to question the CSE report on pesticide residues in soft drinks,” it said.

The British laboratory has said the CSE’s finding of the pesticide heptachlor was questionable because it has been banned in India since 1996. But the CSE said heptachlor was a “persistent” pesticide that takes more than 20 years to degrade.

“As a result, heptachlor has been detected in other food samples, which have been analyzed by the government itself,” the CSE said. “The problem is that the U.K. laboratory does not understand tropical toxicology.”

PepsiCo India in a statement said its products conformed to the highest international standards and were in compliance with all Indian regulations.

“We will continue to work with the government of India to establish science-based norms for soft drinks,” the company said.

Three years ago, CSE conducted similar tests and said it found soft drinks sold by Coca-Cola India and PepsiCo India contained pesticide levels that were 30 and 36 times higher, respectively, than EU standards.

In its latest tests, the CSE said last week it found the soft drink samples contained pesticide residues 24 times higher than the norm proposed — but yet to be announced — by a regulatory arm of the Indian government.

The CSE said almost all soft drinks sold in India contain high levels of pesticides, but the focus was on Coca-Cola and PepsiCo because the two account for nearly 80 percent of India’s $2 billion soft drink market.

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