Wednesday, April 11, 2007

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia — Bolivian coca farmers, whose product is exported to the United States to flavor Coca-Cola, argue that they should have the same right to “industrialize” the plant that is used to make cocaine.

“Coca-Cola has bought 4 tons of coca from my syndicate in Chapare. If they can industrialize coca, why can’t we?” asked Margarita Teran, who heads the coca committee of Bolivia’s Constituent Assembly, which is writing a new constitution.

Bolivian officials say Coca-Cola buys about 200 tons of coca leaves annually from Bolivia and Peru to flavor the drink.

A U.S. government official familiar with the process confirmed that coca leaves are imported into the United States from Bolivia and other Andean countries to two private companies, where they are processed under the supervision of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to eliminate any cocaine.

The cleansing process rids any trace of the drug from the leaves, which are then used as a flavoring agent for Coke, the official said.

In Atlanta, a spokesman for the Coca-Cola Co. declined to discuss the ingredients in the world’s most popular soft drink.

“As a matter of policy, for proprietary reasons, the Coca-Cola Company does not disclose information about what flavorings we do or do not use,” the spokesman said.

The use of coca leaves in Coke could explain a persistent urban legend that the original formula invented by Atlanta pharmacist John Pemberton in 1886 contained cocaine.

“Neither Coca-Cola nor any other product of the Coca-Cola Company has ever used cocaine as an ingredient,” the Coke spokesman said.

The amount of coca leaves used in the soft drink is a tiny fraction of coca that is illegally grown to make cocaine, about 250,000 tons of dried leaves a year, according to U.S. and international estimates.

Nevertheless, it has become a huge issue in Bolivia, where anti-American President Evo Morales was elected in December 2005 on a platform to legalize coca growing and develop commercial uses for the product.

As a result, coca-farming syndicates have become politically powerful and have taken aim at what they call Coca-Cola’s “exclusive monopoly” to commercialize their product.

Miss Teran of the Constituent Assembly, for example, says coca has a variety of medicinal and nutritional uses and has called on Coca-Cola to change its name and drop the “Coca.”

She is also campaigning to incorporate the leaf into Bolivia’s national seal, which sits at the center of the nation’s tricolor flag.

Sergio Medinacelli, a parliamentary deputy for the conservative Podemos party and former vice minister for drug prevention and rehabilitation, confirmed what is common knowledge here — that Bolivia and Peru export “small quantities” of coca leaves each year to “flavor” Coca-Cola.

“The U.S. sets the legal limits for industrial coca, which is one of the reasons why the issue is so politically charged,” Mr. Medinacelli said.

The Stephan Chemical company of New Jersey is an authorized buyer of the leaf.

Albo Export, Stephan Chemical’s purchasing agent in Bolivia, explained that when the coca leaves reach New Jersey, they are stored in cases certified by the DEA and deposited in special warehouses “protected by the most modern alarm systems.”

“They are closely inspected by officials who check the volume of deliveries against amounts authorized for import,” according to the company.

Companies in Bolivia, Peru and Colombia are attempting to develop a variety of consumer products from coca, including candy, wine, shampoo and toothpaste.

Nils Ericsson, president of Peru’s National Commission for Life and Development, offers one estimate of the amount of coca leaves used for Coke.

“Coca-Cola buys 115 tons of coca leaf from Peru and 105 tons from Bolivia per year, with which it produces without alkaloids 500 million bottles of soda per day,” Mr. Ericsson said in a 2006 statement that was widely quoted in the local press.

For centuries, peasants in the Andean highlands have chewed coca leaves to stave off hunger and the effects of high altitude.

• Jerry Seper and Willis Witter contributed to this report in Washington.

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide