Thursday, June 8, 2023

Dangerous meals

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Food product companies have misled consumers for too long. But it’s high time we became alert to their slew of misinformation

By Bhavdeep Kang

In a country where the food discourse is marked by quantitative rather than qualitative concerns, Maggi’s alleged flouting of food safety standards promises to be a landmark case. Until now, misbranding, misleading advertisements and food contamination have paled against the backdrop of endemic malnutrition, allowing Big Food a free run in exploiting credulous consumers.

With food security assured and a given a growing incidence of diabetes, cancer, obesity and cardio-vascular disease, middle-class consumers are questioning what they eat, as opposed to how much. The snack snafu is a clear signal to food companies—mainly MNCs—that the party is over; the Indian consumer can no longer be taken for granted.

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Back in 2003, when the Centre for Science and Environment found high levels of pesticides in soft drinks, Coca Cola and Pepsi got clean away, because verifiable safety standards had not been notified. The food safety law (Food Safety and Standards Act) was passed in 2006 and standards for “contaminants, toxins and residues” laid down by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India in 2011.

Food safety concerns are usually with reference to contaminants like pesticides. Nutrition is the pro-vince of
the individual consumer, who exercises a choice on what to eat, based on nutritional data provided by the manufacturer. It becomes a matter of concern when the consumer is deprived of the right to an informed choice—through unsubstantiated claims, partial information or misleading advertising.

The promotion of vanaspati ghee was a classic instance of consumers being led up the garden path by manufacturers and advertisers. The Indian appetite for desi ghee prompted the Lever brothers (now Hindustan Unilever) to introduce ersatz ghee—partially hydrogenated vegetable oil—under the brand name Dalda. Although it was cheaper, increased the shelf life of cooked food and improved its appearance and taste, the Indian consumer still preferred traditional ghee.

Nestle introduced “healthy” variants, in the form of atta, dal and oats noodles, enabling urban mothers to stock up on instant noodles with a clear conscience.

To win her over, Dalda launched a series of advertisements touting the health benefits of vanaspati ghee. “Mothers who care use Dalda”. “For your family choose the best. Choose Dalda”. Moms were told it was great for their growing children, fresh and pure and fortified with vitamins. The bright yellow tin became a fixture at all halwai shops, bakeries and middle-class kitchens.

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But vanaspati ghee, of which Dalda was the most popular brand, was loaded with trans fats. In the 1990s, it became generally accepted that trans fats were heart toxic. Mothers who cared had fed their children a recipe for coronary heart disease.

Moving on to misbranding, India’s ice cream industry is a textbook case. Around half the ice cream market in India comprises “frozen desserts”. They come in cups and cones and sticks, look and taste like ice cream and are sold from ice cream vendors’ carts— but they are made from vegetables oils rather than milk. While Amul and Mother Dairy make genuine ice cream, companies like Kwality Walls and Cream Bell base their frozen desserts on vegetable fats. Consumers don’t know the difference. Even those who read the small print assume “frozen dessert” is ice cream by another name.

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Chocolates also call for closer scrutiny, sometimes substituting vegetable oil—including the partially hydrogenated or trans fats variety—for cocoa solids. Manufacturers generally do not specify the percentage of cocoa solids or vegetable fats present. But any amount of hydrogenated vegetable fat is, or ought to be, a consumer alert.

Nestle, which manufactures and distributes Maggi, could be hauled up on two counts: misleading advertising and violation of food safety norms. Maggi enjoyed a great run in the 1990s. It was affordable, easy to make and the kids loved it. But once its junk food status had been firmly established, consumer resistance built up. Nestle then introduced “healthy” variants, in the form of atta, dal and oats noodles, enabling urban mothers to stock up on instant noodles with a clear conscience. “Taste bhi, health bhi”, claimed Maggi and consumers bought it.

Nestle began using celebrities to endorse Maggi only in 2004, starting with Preity Zinta. Later, Amitabh Bachchan and Madhuri Dixit were brought on board. Unlike Kangana Ranaut—who turned down an advertisement for fairness cream—the Maggi crew saw nothing objectionable in monetizing their fan following while promoting nutritionally challenged products. After all, even Aamir “Satyamev Jayate” Khan’s social conscience proved less robust than that of badminton star Pullela Gopichand or wrestling champion Sangram Singh, both of whom refused to endorse Coca Cola.

Nestle also has to contend with charges of contamination. Samples of Maggi were found to contain monosodium glutamate and lead in excess of permitted levels. The parent company is no stranger to food re-calls, having had to pull its products off the shelves—baby milk powder (contaminated with melamine) in 2008 and cookie dough (with E Coli bacteria) in 2009.

Is the fuss over Maggi justified, given the fact that our entire food chain is contaminated? Cereals, dals, oils, milk, eggs, vegetables and fruits contain pesticide residues to some degree or the other—a legacy of the green revolution which introduced extensive use of agro-chemicals. Farmers were seduced into buying pesticides through glamorous advertisements featuring lush village belles and heroically proportioned farmers. Vendors did not take the trouble to inform farmers that many of the pesticides were carcinogenic.

Samples of agricultural produce are rarely tested, unless for export. It’s just too massive an exercise. Food safety will have to be addressed from the producer rather than the consumer end by restricting the sale and use of toxic insecticides, herbicides and fungicides and a concerted shift to safer crop protection measures, like bio-control agents and herbal pesticides.

For food safety campaigners, genetically modified food crops could well emerge as a new threat. If these are introduced, consumers will have to insist on a strict labelling regime which gives them the right to choose between GM and non-GM produce. MNCs will naturally oppose this, as consumers have consistently preferred non-GM foods.

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