Coca-Cola spends $2.8 billion a year in advertising to make sure its soda is seen as the most iconic American drink -- a beverage enjoyed around the world, virtual peace-building in a bottle. The company has spent 124 years polishing its image, but it took author Michael Blanding only 300 pages to tarnish that gleam. In his new book, The Coke Machine: The Dirty Truth Behind the World's Favorite Soft Drink, Blanding details the sordid history of the company, from patent medicine experiment to multinational behemoth.
The book opens with a page- and stomach-turning description of the murder of Isidro Gil, a union worker posted at the front gate of a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Carepa, Colombia. As Blanding describes later in the book, Coca-Cola has been accused of being complicit in the deaths of union members in South America who were killed by paramilitaries. Some people may find this shocking. "Finding the Coca-Cola Company accused of murder is like finding out Santa Claus is accused of being a pedophile," Blanding writes in the introduction. But throughout the book he details the accusations against Coca-Cola on the human rights front, explaining why Coke is reviled elsewhere in the world. In India and Mexico the company is facing blowback for allegations that its bottling plants have drained local aquifers and polluted water sources; in Turkey there are more charges of anti-union activity; and in the U.S. and Europe people are fed up with Coke's advertising to children, especially in schools, and are concerned about the link between soft drinks and obesity.
Blanding recently spoke to me by phone to tell us what he uncovered in years of investigating claims against the mighty soft-drink giant.
Tara Lohan: Tell me how you first got started on this project.
Michael Blanding: I've been looking at Coke for a long time. I first heard about some of the allegations against Coke back in 2004 from activists at the Democratic National Convention. Like everyone else I used to have warm, fuzzy feelings about Coke -- all that peace and love and harmony and teaching-the-world-to-sing stuff. Then I heard about violence against union members in South America, water depletion and pollution overseas, and their contribution to child health problems and I realized things don't necessarily "go better with Coke." I wrote an article for the Nation in 2006 that was very well received and convinced me there was enough material for a longer treatment in a book.
TL: When I tell people I'm reading your book, the first question they always ask is 'Is there really cocaine in it?' As you mention in the beginning of the book, the company did have some shady beginnings.
MB: Yeah, all evidence including court testimony from the founder of the Coca-Cola Company itself points to the fact that there was cocaine in it. Coke had its beginning in an era when doctors would kill you or cure you and people turned to all these home dosing remedies and cocaine was seen back then as being this wonder drug that cured everything. Even so, there probably wasn't much cocaine in it -- only 1/20th to 1/30th of a modern dose. But to this day the Coca-Cola company still swears there was never any cocaine in it. Anything that runs against their squeaky clean image they are not going to admit.
TL: It seems the company has always been a bit two-faced. One of the things I found so interesting was how the company was pushing its product overseas during the second World War. You write that it was given as a reward to Charles B. Hall, the first African-American fighter pilot to shoot down an enemy plane and that Coke even petitioned the government (successfully) to be exempted from sugar rationing on the grounds that soda boosted troop morale. But yet at the same time it was seen as the antidote to fascism it was also being served in Nazi Germany.
MB: It was surprising to me that Coca-Cola, as anti-government as they were in some ways with taxes and regulations, was actually primarily funded by the U.S. government in establishing bottling plants overseas and convincing the army that they would be an essential item during wartime. At the same time, the German subsidiary of Coke was doing the same thing in Nazi Germany and took over soft-drink production for the Third Reich. When they finally ran out of Coca-Cola syrup they used grapefruit syrup and created a new beverage called Fanta, which is the same drink we drink today. Really the company was playing both sides of the war but it got credit for supporting the troops and being this patriotic beverage that really became a symbol of America.
TL: Can you talk a little bit about how they were able to win influence with schools? You mention that schools signed on to exclusive deals, known as 'pouring contracts,' with certain soda companies -- often with sizable perks. One of the most glaring of these you mention was a 1998 deal with Cicero-North Syracuse High School, where Coke gave them $900,000 to build a new football stadium, complete with a giant Coke logo on a 6-foot high scoreboard and the requirement that athletes always drink out of red Coke cups while on the field.
MB: The pushing of soft drinks in schools was part of a deliberate strategy on the part of Coke and also Pepsi and other soft drink companies in the 1990s when they were facing an increasingly saturated market and schools became an attractive place for them to not only sell more soft drinks but to brand kids early. That's why Coca-Cola's former marketing director admitted to me that it was really part of their marketing strategy to get kids to choose one brand or the other early on in life and they did that through these exclusive pouring rights contracts where they would give the schools a bit of money up front and the schools would promise to serve Coke and only Coke or Pepsi and only Pepsi in the hallways and cafeterias.
TL: And that was at the exclusion of things like juice and other healthier beverages?
MB: Yes, they would actually discourage the consumption of juice and milk by offering schools a lower percentage of the sales of those items.
TL: Let's talk about Coke's international abuses -- there are so many in your book it's hard to know where to begin. What's the most egregious for you?
MB: For me, finding out about violence against union members in South America was just so wild -- even just to use Coke and murder in the same sentence just seems so shocking. Yet while there is no direct evidence that the Coca-Cola company in Atlanta was ordering violence against union members, there is just so much disturbing circumstantial evidence about the timing of these attacks and murders by paramilitaries occurring at the time when union members were negotiating better working conditions, and there is documentation of meetings between bottling plant managers and paramilitary commanders. In one case plant managers actually framed union workers and sent them to jail for six months for allegedly setting a bomb in the plant, even though they were later found completely innocent. But it destroyed their families in the meantime. Still, the company here has done very little to investigate these allegations, and in fact has done one whitewash after another when they've claimed to investigate it. It's really raised a lot of questions about what they knew, when they knew it, and why they haven't done more to stop it.
TL: One of the things you mention is how Coke has an interesting distribution system where they are able, at least legally, to avoid responsibility for things. Can you talk a little about how that works?
MB: Way back in the early history of Coke they basically gave away the bottling contracts, because back then it was all about fountain drinks and it was later looked at as a big mistake that they'd given away this huge profit for nothing. But in more modern times the arrangement has actually proved more beneficial because as they've gone overseas they have established these independent bottling companies and have bought just enough shares in these companies -- sometimes up to 49 percent -- to ensure they can pretty much control what they do, but when something bad does occur they can shirk responsibility and say that it was a separate company and it wasn't them. And they have done that very effectively to deflect criticism.
TL: Can you briefly explain what happened in Colombia since that is one of the more more shocking stories you have in the book?
MB: Colombia, as many people know, is in the middle of civil war where paramilitary death squads are fighting guerrilla groups. But since the guerrillas are primarily in the jungles and they are hard to fight, the paramilitaries turn their violence against anyone on the left who they think is in any way associated with the guerrillas, even when there is no evidence to show that they are. And one of the groups they target are union members. In this case, in the region of Colombia that I focused on where a number of these murders occurred, there is testimony from paramilitary commanders that every company operating in that region had to pay the paramilitaries. In some cases involving Chiquita and Dole, they have actually admitted that they paid these paramilitaries to murder and kidnap and torture union members in the area and that is what the accusations against Coke are all about. There are activists and labor organizers who accuse Coke as well of being complicit in this -- at best they've done nothing while these attacks have occurred in their plants and benefited from the destruction of the unions there. And at worst, they have actively cooperated and colluded with these paramilitaries who've perpetrated this violence.
TL: Your book covers a lot of the human rights abuses that happened in South and Central America. Over in India you talk more about the environmental abuses. What's going on there?
MB: I think the violence against the union members in Colombia and also in Guatemala is one of the most egregious violations, but I think that the kind of pollution and water depletion that I witnessed in India is really more typical of the company around the world. There have been a number of bottling plants in India where the level of the water supply has dramatically dropped and in some cases there have been studies showing that effluent from the plants has dumped cadmium, chromium and other carcinogens onto the land of those who live in the community. I actually went to one of the villages where this was allegedly happening and I saw the wells are completely dry and the one well that did work, I tasted some of the water and I really wished that I hadn't -- it left this really horrible taste in the back of my throat that lasted for hours. That particular plant was actually closed after a lot of public pressure from these villagers that grew into a statewide campaign, but there have been a number of plants in other places in India that have remained open and are still the subject of controversy.
TL: It seems like in a lot of the organizing efforts that are done against Coke, especially you mention on college campuses, they are asking universities to cut their contracts with Coke, it generally seems like they are replaced by Pepsi. Is that a much better alternative?
MB: I've been asked this question a lot, and my answer is that they are a little bit better. They are not seen as such an anti-union company, they haven't been involved in the kind of violence that Coke has been. Even on the health issues, it seems that Pepsi has been more willing to compromise and they have expanded into other foods like Quaker Oatmeal, so when people criticize them about soft drinks, they can say well, at least we are doing healthy things, too. Whereas Coke has stayed pretty consistently in the beverage industry.
TL: I know that Coke has been trying to make itself look better on the environmental front. Is there any validity to its claims of corporate social responsibility, like its rainwater harvesting program, or is it just PR?
MB: I don't think that it is entirely PR, I think they are doing some good things, they are making some efforts in recycling, they are cutting energy costs, using hybrid trucks, paying money to conserve water basins around the world -- all these are good things. However, I found that in many cases they were doing this more as a way to brand themselves as an environmental company and anything that would cost them a good deal of money they were not doing -- they reduced the amount of recycled material in their bottles because that is more expensive and they've lobbied against bottle bills that would affect their bottom line. In India one of the solutions they tout to the water problem is rainwater harvesting but they still refuse to measure it in any way -- they say that they recharge all the water they take from these aquifers but in the same breath they claim that they have no way of measuring whether that is true. It took me only a few minutes on line to find a company in India and I called them up and they have the exact monitoring equipment that Coke says it's not possible to have and they have even sold it to the Coca-Cola company in India for use in part for monitoring their intake wells, so clearly, there is a lot of effort being put into this program but they seem to be deliberately withholding any evidence of its effectiveness, which leads me to believe it's not doing much.
TL: If people who read your book are appalled by what they learn about Coke, what should they do?
MB: I sort of step back a little bit from telling people what to do. I really did write this book as a journalist and not as an advocate but I think that if that the free market is going to function and that people are going to make choices about the products they consume that they really need to know all the information they can about what they are consuming. And where I think that falls apart is when a company like Coke has such a great ability to project an image that is so different from reality and is spending $2.8 billion a year on its advertising budget to do that. So I hope in some ways my book can be a counterbalance to that and provide information that gets at the truth about what the company is really doing, and then people can make up their own minds about what they want to do about it.
You can read the entire interview with Michael Blanding on AlterNet.