Coke and Me

A Michael Moore–like British journalist investigates the world’s top soft-drink maker.

Had I known anything about Mark Thomas or his new book, Belching Out the Devil: Global Adventures With Coca-Cola, I might not have accepted the opportunity to write this review with such alacrity. I have, you see, a strong historical and emotional attachment to the books subject matter. For a half century, one member or another of the Coca-Cola family of sweet fizzy beveragesCoke, Diet Coke, Tab, Sprite, even Orange and Grape Fantahave been a treasured staple in my diet. At every phase of my life, Coke has meant party, reward, relaxation, fun. Since high school, I have been a cheap Coca-Cola hophead who even now prefers to get his caffeine from a can of Diet Coke rather than a cup of Starbucks. Throughout my adulthood, I have been defiant about my palates beverage preferences, a happy ignoramus who prefers Coke over any product from Napa Valley, a man content to sit mute during discussions of the comparative merits of single-malt scotches, but an authority on where in the tristate area the price of a two-liter bottle of Coke has fallen below ninety-nine cents. Somewhere in the bowels of Cokes global headquarters in Atlanta, there sits a bean counter who annually projects without a second thought a transfer of several hundred dollars from my coffers to Cokes.

Thomas, as those of you with a transatlantic pop cultural field of reference may know, is a British comedian who came to prominence as a reporter and presenter for the BBC. Edgy and often profane, Thomas has a decided pro-proletarian bias. (He is, after all, the son of a midwife and a self-employed builder.) He specializes in pulling off the audacious stunt that rudely undercuts a powerful person and places him on the defensivethink the English Michael Moore, although Thomas does not seem so unabashedly unkempt. It was Thomas, for example, who revealed how rich Britons were avoiding inheritance tax by declaring that the art, furniture, homes, and land they had been bequeathed were exempt from being taxed because they were available for public viewing. Thomas staked out Nicholas Soames, a Tory member of Parliament and the grandson of Winston Churchill, and pursued him relentlessly, asking to see the heirlooms kept in his home. Eventually Soames paid the tax, and the loophole was closed.

Thomas also fought an effort by police to keep mass demonstrations out of Parliament Squaretoo noisy, too unruly, and too unpredictableby requiring demonstrators to get a permit and limiting the amount of space said demonstrations could occupy. Thomas made nonsense of the regulation by recruiting a huge number of lone protestors who inveighed against everything from war to the deplanetization of Pluto.

In short, Thomas is just the sort of fellow I would normally welcome as amusing and provocative, but whom I have now discovered poking around uninvited inside my refrigerator.

And thank goodness. Ignoring the obvious targets of overweight children with rotting teeth and diabetes, Thomas hits the road and finds that Coke, despite its playful Christmas polar bears, Norman Rockwell associations, and wanting to teach the world to sing, has not been what you would want to call a perfect corporate citizen.

In Colombia, for example, right-wing paramilitary groups with ties to the army and the drug cartels waged a campaign of violence and intimidation against the trade unions at various Coca-Cola bottling plants that lasted through the 1990s and beyond; during that time, six union organizers, a pro-union manager, and a pro-union worker were murdered, the last on plant premises. In Turkey, the Coca-Cola bottler drove down workers wages, fired organizers, and dismissed scores of union members; during a particularly sensitive point in the negotiations, the bottler thought it helpful to bring riot police into the room.

In two separate locations in India, bottling plants were heedlessly built in traditionally drought-plagued locations, with the altogether predictable result that producing the water-based beverage further lowered the water table and drove the local farmers into destitution. In one community, farmers who before the coming of Coca-Cola had been able to pump water up from a depth of thirty-five feet using a three-horsepower motor are now required to go down to 125 feet and use a fifteen-horsepower motor.

In Mexico, the Coca-Cola bottler used bullying and, as a court later found, monopolistic business practices against mom-and-pop groceries, cutting off shipments of Coke products to the stores and confiscating their coolers in an attempt to keep a cheaper competitor off the shelves. In El Salvador, Cokes fealty to the United Nations campaign against child labor extended to prohibiting the use of child workers by immediate suppliers while turning a blind eye to those further up the supply chain. So while no children work in the sugar mill where the bottler gets its sugar, many work in the fields of the plantations where the sugar cane is grown.

It doesnt take a scholar of fine print to see what the corporate chiefs in charge of this great American brand have to say about these inarguably sad situations: Dont blame us. They are quick to attribute all these actions to independent bottling companies, who have so little to do with the big corporation they may as well be called Pepsi. Of course, that is a mighty slender reed to lean upon. And since a new law was passed permitting foreign corporations to be sued in U.S. courts, Coca-Cola has struggled to pull off the amazing trick of simultaneously distancing itself from the most odious practices of some of the independent bottlers while at the same time maintaining profitable relationships with them. The companys spokespeople tell Thomas that Coca-Cola is attempting to push its bottlers to adopt better labor practices. And perhaps that is the case; a labor settlement has indeed been offered to union members in Colombia, for instance. The offer, however, requires the workers to leave the union and to never discuss Coca-Cola for the rest of their natural lives.

What Thomas really wants is for Coca-Cola to take some moral high ground and deprive errant local bottlers of their supply to the secret formula that gives Coke its happiness mojo, or, failing that, to have its corporate spokespeople admit that we live in a morally murky world where even people who underwrite the Olympics and fill the Obama White House with Diet Coke sometimes end up doing business in ways that are, well, exploitative. Smoothies that they are, Cokes mouthpieces never yield to Thomass sallies. Indeed, in one of the most dryly amusing moments in the book, Thomas records his effort to schedule an interview with Ed Potter, who is Cokes global workplace rights director, while Potter is trying to escape after a Parliamentary hearing. Thomas asks Potter for five minutes sometime during the companys upcoming annual meeting, and Potter responds, “Well, if it was up to me … you know, back when I was a lawyer I would have said yes but …” Potter then motions toward an approaching pack of Coca-Cola PR staff. Thomas asks him, “In principle, would you mind?” Potter says, “In principle no, I dont mind.”

Of course, the corporation cant blame everything Thomas has discovered on rogue Third World bottlers. Thomas also discusses how the company is shutting down a plant in Drogheda, Ireland, which produces most of the concentrate that gets sent to Coke bottlers throughout the world. Each gallon of concentrate is good for about 50,000 drinks, and the Drogheda plant makes about eight million gallons a year, at a cost of $3.67 a gallon. But the plant, which is heavily unionized, is being replaced by another Irish plantin Ballinawhich is not unionized, and where the cost per unit is $2.60. Droghedas workers are out of luck, but before you get all caught up feeling their pain, feel some of your own. The reason the secret ingredient is made in Ireland instead of, say, Georgia, is that this signature American corporation finds it cheaper to locate operations in tax-friendly countries like Ireland and pay shipping charges. Washingtons tax losses are measured in the hundreds of millions.

Most of Belching Out the Devil consists of Thomass trips to the plants in contention and his visits with the men and women, the farmers and factory workers and store owners and housewives, who have had their lives made miserable by the misbehavior of people acting in the name of Coke. Thomas does a good job of keeping the story moving, leavening his high dudgeon with sharp sarcastic wit”The answer lies in the statistic. Oh yes, my friend, statistic: the thinking mans lie”and lightening his storys misery index with bemused observations and tales of local color. In Mexico, for example, Coca-Cola has managed to infiltrate ancient Mayan religious rites. In one ceremony, candles represent fire, pine needles represent the earth, and Coca-Cola represents water. A guide explains that Coke has “another element, the gas,” which causes burping, “which throws out the bad energy … the ghosts, the nightmares, everything bad.” It turns out that the ceremonial burping used to be induced with fermented corn. But corn takes eight days of fermentation to achieve prime burpability, whereas all you have to do with Coke is pop the top.

Alas, as Thomas has shown us, it will take more than a few belches to disperse the bad spirits induced by Coke. Meanwhile, Im making the switch to Pepsi, at least until Thomas writes a sequel.

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Jamie Malanowski

Jamie Malanowski is a writer and editor. He has been an editor at Time, Esquire and most recently Playboy, where he was Managing Editor.