The Bombay High Court striking down the Maggi ban saying it violated the “principles of natural justice” shows just how untenable the government’s stand in the matter has been from the very beginning. The court observed that the Food Safety Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) banned the popular instant noodles brand from Nestle even though tests by various food regulators in various states threw up widely varying results—Delhi, Uttarakhand and Gujarat found lead levels to be high while Goa, Maharashtra and Kerala found it to be within permissible limits. This points to very serious problems in the country’s food safety standards – should the noodles and tastemaker be tested separately or together in a cooked form, in the way they are eaten?—and makes the ban quite unwarranted. Indeed, both FSSAI and the government that allowed it to ban the noodles and even file a class-action suit against Nestle, must pause to rethink their actions since a host of international food regulators—including those of the US, Singapore and the UK—found the Indian samples fit for consumption as per their respective standards; and few could argue their standards, or quality-checks, are less stringent than the FSSAI’s. Within the government too, there were those who had questioned FSSAI’s actions—food processing minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal stated that the body was creating “an environment of fear”. Moreover, as the court pointed out, Nestle was never served a show-cause notice before the ban. Given this, at the very least, the government must immediately withdraw the suit at the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (NCDRC) that seeks damages from Nestle on behalf of the Indian consumer.
The Bombay High Court has ordered Nestle to send five samples each to three central laboratories, in Hyderabad, Jaipur and Mohali, for testing. The company has been ordered not to manufacture or sell the noodles until test results from all three labs are in and clear the product. The FSSAI would have done well to proceed in a similar manner right from the start, but instead, it selectively relied on tests of a few state regulators, overriding evidence to the contrary from others. The high court order gives the government the chance for a course correction—to start with, it needs to drop the suit at NCDRC and time its final decision on Maggi until after the three labs give their reports. After which, serious thought needs to be given to how to beef up the FSSAI and its testing/labelling procedures—this includes not just large capital budgets, but also needs a complete restructuring on how FSSAI functions at the moment.