Maggi Noodles is under the spotlight for high levels of lead and MSG being found in samples. Has Nestle flouted food safety norms in order to capture the `2,700 crore instant noodle market in India?
By Dinesh C Sharma
For a whole generation of young Indians, Maggi, the instant noodle brand of Swiss multinational Nestle, is almost in the same category as the Indian staple diet of dal, chawal and roti. That’s why the millennial generation was caught in a tizzy when reports of Maggi flouting food safety norms erupted.
Emotions ranged from disbelief and anger to conspiracy and vendetta, with one digital news website declaring that “Maggi disappearing is less likely to have a positive impact and more an apocalyptic outcome”. The “two minute” noodle brand has ruled the Indian processed food market for three decades with aggressive marketing and emotions of “love, bonding and togetherness” peddled through television spots. With the contamination charges sla-pped on its flagship brand, Nestle India has been forced to defend its carefully crafted image. Besides perception, what is at stake for the company is its market share —close to 70 per cent—in the `2,700 crore instant noodle market in India. Maggi accounts for almost a third of Nestle India’s sales. Besides business and perception, this episode will be a major test for India’s still-evolving food standard and regulatory system.
The controversy began with Uttar Pradesh Food Safety and Drug Administration finding traces of toxic heavy metal lead, as well as high levels of added monosodium glutamate (MSG), a taste enhancer, during routine tests on samples picked up from local markets. The lead concentration was found to be 17.2 parts per million (ppm), which is nearly seven times the maximum permissible limit. The acceptable limit of lead ranges between 0.01 ppm and 2.5 ppm, as notified in the Food Products Standards and Food Additives Regulations, 2011, notified under the Food Safety and Standards Act of 2006.
Opinion is divided on the source of lead and MSG in Maggi samples. Nestle claims official tests may have confused naturally occurring glutamate from raw materials like onions, peas and tomato with commercially added MSG. The lead content, it says, is regularly monitored as part of quality control processes, including testing by accredited laboratories, and has been found to be within permissible limits.
From Amitabh Bachchan to common housewives, everyone latched on to the fast food revolution ushered in by Maggi Noddles.
“Possible sources of lead in any processed food product are mainly water used in processing, indirect sources like spices and equipment used in production. Lead could also come from the packaging material.
Whatever be the source, the manufacturer is responsible for the final product,” says Dr Thuppil Venkatesh, head of Bangalore-based National Referral Centre for Lead Poisoning in India. These elevated levels of lead in Maggi, he says, is a serious issue since growing children—who are target of all junk food advertising—are most vulnerable to serious health impacts of lead exposure. “Detailed and exhaustive studies done by our center on lead content in various food ingredients and processed food have found it both in branded and unbranded products,” he adds.
While there is a permissible limit for lead in processed food, the 2011 rules state that MSG cannot be added to “pastas and noodles”, as well as any food for use by infants below 12 months. For other processed foods, use of MSG is allowed, subject to Good Manufacturing Practices and under proper label declaration, as provided in Food Safety and Standards (Packaging and Labeling) Regulations, 2011. On toxic metal contamination, the law states: “No article of food shall contain any contaminant, naturally occurring toxic substances or toxins or hormone or heavy metals in excess of such quantities as may be specified by regulations.”
Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) has welcomed the food authorities’ initiative in testing processed food for contaminants like heavy metals. Chandra Bhushan, CSE’s deputy director general and head of its food safety programme, says: “It’s an issue of public health and public good, hence, there is no room for any compromise. It’s great that for the first time, processed food is being tested for contaminants like heavy metals by our food safety authorities.” CSE’s Pollution Monitoring Lab has tested a wide range of food products—from bottled water and soft drinks to honey and chicken—and exposed their contamination by pesticides, antibiotics and heavy metals.
The UP food regulator found Nestle violating the food safety law on two counts—presence of MSG and lead beyond permissible limits. The state authorities have filed a case against the company in the court of Additional Chief Judicial Magistrate in Barabanki from where the samples were picked up.
OTHERS OF ILK
This is the first time a government regulator has found a leading manufacturer of a popular consumer product at fault. Earlier too, food companies were found to violate labeling and other norms, but their products were tested by action groups like CSE. Food safety authorities had then turned a blind eye and no prosecutions followed. In the present case, Nestle withdrew two lakh packets of Maggi from UP as they were being sold beyond the “best before use” date, while denying charges of excess lead and MSG in its product.
The UP case has had a domino effect, with food authorities in several other states testing Maggi and deciding to prosecute the manufacturer.
The UP case has had a domino effect, with food authorities in several other states testing Maggi packets and deciding to prosecute the manufacturer. The central authority—Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI)—too has begun its own investigation. “The food safety law empowers state food authorities to proceed against food companies independently for violations of its provisions. When the prosecution begins, these cases may be clubbed for common hearing at the instance of high courts or the Supreme Court or if the company files a petition for doing so,” explains Bejon Misra, a consumer activist and former member of FSSAI. Nestle could also face a class action suit if a complaint is filed before the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission.
WHAT’S UP, NESTLE?
Nestle has earlier faced rough weather for violating the Infant Milk Substitutes (IMS) Act, which prohibits promotion or sale of infant milk substitutes. “Recently, was booked by health authorities in Haryana for violating labeling provisions of the IMS Act. In a similar case earlier, Nestle was found guilty by the additional deputy commissioner of Rohtak for misbranding baby foods with health claims and for violating labeling norms under the Food Safety and Standards Act,” reveals Dr JP Dadhich, national convener of the Breastfeed-ing Promotion Network of India.
This comes to the role of a celebrity endorsing an unhealthy food product. Is he or she responsible for health claims made in an advertisement? The answer is yes, according to food safety authorities in Uttar Pradesh who have issued a notice to Madhuri Dixit, asking how Maggi noodles endorsed by her could be considered nutritious and what was the basis for making such a claim. While Madhuri said on Twitter: “Nestle has reassured me that they adhere to stringent testing for quality and safety,” the notice said it was a violation of “advi-sory on misbranding and misleading claims” in food adverts issued by FSSAI in 2011.
The advisory says: “The various false claims made by the Food Business Operator about food articles and consequent violation, if any, are punishable under the provisions of Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006…. Misleading advertisement related to food items is imputed with malafide intent on the part of the person making the claim and is normally made to misguide a consumer to purchase the food item without disclosing the complete details on the advertisement.” However, it is unclear if the guidelines also cover celebrities who feature in ads or just the manufacturer.
Food is an emotive issue for consumers, and companies making them and stars endorsing them would do well to keep ethical standards about it.
—The writer is Fellow, Centre for Media Studies, New Delhi