Un-noodling the Maggi controversy: What is the truth?

The Swiss food giant, Nestle, considered one of the bestknown multinational corporations with an admirable reputation for quality control and standards enforcement, finds itself in a potentially brand-damaging controversy that has snowballed ever since a laboratory in Uttar Pradesh claimed tests had revealed the presence of unacceptable levels of lead and monosodium glutamate, or MSG, in its most popular product, Maggi noodles.

State after state prohibited the sale of Maggi instant noodles while officials issued statements questioning the quality of the product and the credibility of Nestlé. On Friday, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India claimed to have found nine variants of Maggi noodles “unsafe and hazardous” for human consumption.

Based on its ‘findings’, the FSSAI, India’s national food regulator (yes, it does exist), has ordered Nestle to “withdraw and recall all the nine approved variants of its Maggi instant noodles from the market ... and stop further production, processing, import, distribution and sale of the said product with immediate effect.”

The firman follows Nestlé voluntarily recalling Maggi noodles to calm what its chief called “confused consumers”. Meanwhile, Singapore has prohibited the sale of ‘Made in India’ Maggi noodles while Britain has ordered random samples to be tested. Needless to say, all this has impacted Nestlé negatively in more ways than one; its stocks have already taken a knocking, losing 10 per cent of their value.

Three points need to be made before we proceed any further on the kerfuffle over Maggi. First, I have not seen any (but I am willing to be corrected on this) comprehensive data-driven report on what exactly has been found wrong with Maggi instant noodles. How many samples were tested? What were the lead and MSG levels? What are the permissible limits? While MSG is an added taste enhancer, what are the possible sources of lead?

Second, Maggi is not the only brand of instant noodles sold across India. The market is now flooded with boil-and-eat noodles-in-a-cup. Most of them are imported from South-East Asian countries; some of them are bulk-produced in China (where human hair is known to be used for making packaged instant soup, don’t ask me how) and repackaged in South-East Asia. There are desi knockoffs too. Are all these products being tested and investigated for ingredients and standards compliance?

Third, if Nestlé has indeed been up to mischief, then it cannot be a recent breach of rules and violation of consumer trust. What were food inspectors and the FSSAI doing all this while? What prompted the UP test? Was it entirely out of the blue without being prompted by considerations other than concerns for food safety?

Nestle’s chief executive, Paul Bulcke, has contradicted the FSSAI’s alarming (or should it be alarmist?) claims. “Our studies showed no lead or MSG in 1,035 tests … We have been carrying out tests on Maggi noodles on multiple batches. All results that came out indicate that Maggi noodles are safe for consumption,” Bulcke said in New Delhi during a globally televised media briefing.

The product, which contributes 25 per cent of Nestlé India’s revenues, had been recalled because the firm “found the customer confused and distressed”. Bulcke clarified, “So as a precautionary measure, as a responsible company, we have withdrawn so that our conclusive tests are shared with authorities. Once the authorities are convinced and customers are convinced, we will put back the stocks.”

Given the patchy record of FSSAI and State FDAs, not to mention rampant malpractice in the departments and the lack of ethics among inspectors whose remit it is to ensure food and drug safety, it is entirely possible Nestle, which would be averse to the idea of ‘grease of doing business’, is bearing the brunt of unfounded allegations. If that is proved to be true, heads must roll, officials jailed and the Government of India made to pay damages even if they run into billions of dollars. Nothing less would suffice.

And if the charges stick, an example should be made of Nestlé. More important, every such product should be subjected to similar scrutiny and severe penalties imposed on producers. Nothing less than this would do justice.

Till then, let’s stay calm and not start burning packaged food producers at the stake. Trial by media is what happens in a banana republic. India is believed to be a law-abiding republic.

Disclaimer: I am ideologically opposed to mass-produced, factory-made junk food. I am also an organic food fanatic.

The writer is a senior journalist based in the National Capital Region. His Twitter handle is @KanchanGupta

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