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How Coca-Cola's Ruthless Business Tactics Created a Despicable Global Powerhouse

Mark Pendergast's book, "For God, Country, and Coca-Cola" guides readers through decades of shrewd marketing campaigns and the company's ugly history.

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JR: Over the years, Coca-Cola has dealt with Nazis, dictators, South Africa's apartheid government, and even allegedly Guatemalan death squads. Should consumers hold Coke accountable for this dark part of its history, or is it all water under the bridge? Do you agree with Coke's position that it doesn't play politics, it just sells soda? 

MP: Of course, the company, like any other business, should be held accountable for its actions, although as you suggest, many of these episodes are safely in the past. The Guatemalan death squads were in the late 1970s. Paramilitaries in Colombia killed union employees in similar fashion in Coke bottling plants in the 1990s. 

Quite recently, human rights violations have once again occurred against Guatemalan bottling employees. The Coca-Cola Company has usually attempted to distance itself from such violence, saying that it doesn't control its bottlers, but that seems disingenuous, since the bottlers rely on Coca-Cola syrup from Big Coke. 

On the other hand, let me point out that while Coke did business inside South Africa during the apartheid regime, it left the country for a while and then was very instrumental in helping to ease a peaceful transition to black rule under Nelson Mandela.

JR: The past decade has ushered in an enormous change in Coca-Cola's product portfolio. How has it changed and why? Do you think the day will come when Coca-Cola's flagship product is no longer its top seller? 

MP: Coca-Cola has diversified in the face of increased competition from other types of beverages and in response to concern over the obesity epidemic. It purchased Glaceau, maker of Vitaminwater, for $4.1 billion, for instance, in 2007. Today the Coca-Cola Company sells 3,500 beverages worldwide, and about a quarter of them are low- or no-calorie.

The future is hard to predict, but I don't think that Coca-Cola will lose its place as the flagship product in the foreseeable future -- but I do predict that the combined sales of Diet Coke and Coca-Cola Zero will eventually surpass sales of regular sugary Coca-Cola.

Jill Richardson is the founder of the blog La Vida Locavore and a member of the Organic Consumers Association policy advisory board. She is the author of "Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It."

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