Food scientists caution against passing 2-minute judgement on Maggi

Scientists say it is unfair to call the noodles ‘unsafe’ even before the final test results are in; ask for findings of other labs and information on how the samples, which allegedly had higher than permitted levels of lead and MSG, were blended and analysed

Food scientists believe the raging controversy over Maggi noodles is unwarranted. According to them, it would be jumping the gun if one were to label the popular food product ‘unsafe’ even before the results of the final tests are in. They have also pointed out a number of grey areas in the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) investigators’ tests.

Also Read: Maggi noodles: The entire controversy explained

Nestle claimed they do not add MSG to Maggi noodles and this is stated on the product as well. Pic/AFP
Nestle claimed they do not add MSG to Maggi noodles and this is stated on the product as well. Pic/AFP

Maggi noodles have been at the centre of an ever-increasing storm after the Uttar Pradesh (UP) FDA officials initiated a recall in April of a batch of the product manufactured in February 2014 — which was tested the same month — after allegedly finding higher than permitted levels of monosodium glutamate (MSG), a taste enhancer, and lead.

Dr Uday Annapure, who is a former president of the Association of Food Scientists and Technologists of India’s Mumbai chapter, asserted that the FDA officials in UP should’ve alerted the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) immediately when they had seized the Maggi noodles packets and subsequently found discrepancies in the laboratory reports. He added that this promptness could’ve helped collect samples from all over the country. The delay on part of the UP FDA meant such packets with discrepancies would’ve either expired or gone off shelves.

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“The delay of over one and a half year (February 2014 to May 2015) has left no samples for further testing, since the fresh samples of noodles may or may not give results to prove any discrepancies,” Dr Annapure told mid-day.

S Anoop, assistant director (enforcement), FSSAI, Delhi, confirmed that the UP FDA had not informed them about the issue. “We were not kept informed about the findings by FDA UP, either then (February 2014) nor now after the latest test reports have come. It is only after the media started reporting about the issue that FSSAI has sent directives to all the state FDAs to carry out inspection of the samples. Had we been informed early, we could have taken similar action then and could have got the stocks for testing then,” he told mid-day.

Asked if any explanation would be sought for this lapse, the officer replied in the affirmative, stating that the point would be raised in the national-level meetings, which are attended by state FDA commissioners.

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Dr Annapure believes other brands should also be subjected to the same scrutiny. “If the authorities (FDA/FSSAI) were serious enough and were actually concerned of public safety at large, noodle samples of all brands from across the country should have been taken and tested. This did not happen,” he said.

According to him, it is also important to find out the methodology used to ascertain the levels of heavy metals by the testing laboratory. “We do not have any scientific database available in India to determine the permissible limits of heavy metals in the raw materials used in food processing industries,” he said.

Maggi noodles fall under Nestlé’s prepared dishes and cooking aids category of products. According to the company’s annual report, in the year 2014, the conglomerate clocked gross sales of Rs 2,900 crore in this category.

No negative reports on Maggi: State
The state government has said there have been no negative reports about the 8-10 Maggi samples tested so far. Food and Civil Supplies Minister Girish Bapat said, “We’ll take necessary action against Nestlé if something is found amiss. The probe into alleged lapses of food safety standards has already been expanded to test Maggi noodles samples from across the country.”

'Look at safety aspects of other foods too'

Dr Deepa Bhajekar, director, D-technology, said, “It is unfair to jump the gun before certain facts — like how the samples were blended and taken for analysis and the findings of other laboratories — are submitted on the issue. It is unfortunate that we do not look at safety aspects of other foods, be it naturally grown or processed.” She added that if one were to look at it from the food safety perspective, the entire market scenario should be taken into consideration. “If the food safety perspective is looked at  strongly, we should consider agricultural crops, including vegetables, and processed foods also. Crops grown in different soils may reflect other heavy metals, which may be harmful or even minerals, which may be beneficial. At present, we do not have elaborate scientific research-based data on this,” Dr Bhajekar said.

Dr Deepa Bhajekar

When contacted for comment on the issue, an official statement was issued by Nestlé India’s Gurgaon office. It read, “On April 30, the local authorities in Lucknow asked us to recall one batch of Maggi noodles (around 200,000 packs) which were manufactured in February 2014 and had already reached the ‘Best Before date’ in November 2014. Nestlé India’s current practice is to collect stock that are near ‘Best Before date’ from distributors/retailers, so we are confident these packs are no longer in the market. The company does not agree with the order and is filing the requisite representations with the authorities.

“We are aware of reports that tests by the local authorities have detected Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) in a sample of Maggi noodles and that they are continuing their investigation. We have submitted product samples to an independent accredited laboratory and will share the results with the authorities.

“We do not add MSG to our Maggi noodles sold in India and this is stated on the concerned product. However, we use hydrolysed groundnut protein, onion powder, and wheat flour to make Maggi noodles sold in India, which all contain glutamate. We believe that the authorities’ tests may have detected glutamate, which occurs naturally in many foods.

“We are also aware of the reports of elevated levels of lead in a pack of Maggi noodles analysed by the authorities. We regularly monitor for lead as part of our stringent quality-control processes, including testing by accredited laboratories. These tests have consistently shown lead levels in Maggi noodles to be within permissible limits. We have submitted product samples to an independent accredited laboratory and will share the results with the authorities.”

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