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  1. Is the Maggi noodles episode an eye-opener?

Is the Maggi noodles episode an eye-opener?

While the Maggi controversy will lead to better enforcement of food safety norms in India, it will also ensure that companies react much faster than what Nestle did in case they get into such troubles

Updated: June 18, 2015 12:38 PM
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Last month, lead and monosodium glutamate (MSG) levels in Nestle’s Maggi noodles were discovered to be much higher than permissible limits. (Reuters)

India has witnessed one of the biggest ‘product recalls’ in the food sector. Recall means an action taken to remove a marketed food from distribution, sale and consumption which is unsafe and violates the provisions of the Act and the rules & regulations made thereunder. The purpose is to prevent, reduce or eliminate risks arising from food to the consumer. In my view, Nestle did not conduct due diligence, which made it accept a voluntary recall in the interest of the consumers. This is the beginning of reforms in the Indian food industry, especially for branded packaged food.

We had several laws governing food standards and quality prior to 2006, which included the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act 1954. These laws were outdated and were not in the interest of the consumers, even though in 1986, when the Consumer Protection Act came into existence, all laws in the country made citizens inspectors. Then where was the need to repeal eight laws such as Prevention of Food Adulteration Act 1954, Fruit Products Order 1955, Meat Food Products Order 1973? We wanted a robust single-window authority to monitor surveillance, to enable us to access safe and quality food, rather than numerous authorities breathing over the shoulders of the industry checking adulteration and prosecuting criminals without any tangible benefit to consumers. This hampered growth and denied consumers right to choice and access to safe and healthy food based on global best standards.

A Singapore laboratory has found Maggi noodles exported from India to be safe. If a sample from India that has been tested in Singapore is safe, there should not be reason for worry: Sunil Alagh

Sunil Alagh

A Singapore laboratory has found Maggi noodles exported from India to be safe. If a sample from India that has been tested in Singapore is safe, there should not be reason for worry: Sunil Alagh

The Maggi episode is a victory for the Indian consumer. The FSSAI needs to be more pro-active and efficient in dealing with safety by laying down science-based standards for food articles and regulate their manufacture, storage, distribution, sale and import, to ensure availability of safe and wholesome food. It can ensure the food industry will be more accountable and transparent to consumers as far as advertisements and messages communicated through celebrities and child stars are concerned. I am sure the food industry has realised the importance of better auditing, Food Safety Management System, traceability, recall and other systems which will curb the use of food adulterants that are not permissible as per the existing provisions of the law.

This is for the first time I have observed that even the ministry of consumer affairs, food & public distribution has started contemplating to claim damages on behalf of innocent consumers, especially children, for misleading and deceptive advertisements by the food industry and making irrational claims through celebrities targeting children for creating a brand without any guilt.

Similarly, even food safety officers in India are liable to a penalty which may extend up to R1 lakh if they are found guilty under section 39 of the Act. In case the complaint made against the food safety officer is false, the complainant shall be punished with fine which shall not be less than R50,000 and may extend to R1 lakh. So, it is not only the food industry that needs to be alert but also food safety officers. Earlier laws did not compensate people for consuming unsafe or sub-standard food, but now they will be paid compensation by the FSSAI.

Finally, I would like to draw the attention of the FSSAI relating to genetically-engineered or modified food in section 22. Can we, as consumers, have the right to choice through a mandatory comprehensive labelling so as to distinguish between food derived from genetically-modified organism (GMO) and without GMO, similar to vegetarian and non-vegetarian labelling by a symbol, which is easily recognised by consumers, and the long-awaited definition on junk food based on WHO Standards on levels of salt, sugar and transfat found in the food. I am confident the Maggi controversy will lead to better enforcement of food safety norms in our country.

The author is founder, Healthy You Foundation, and former member, Food Safety & Standards Authority of India (FSSAI)

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Bejon Kumar Misra

The Maggi episode is a victory for the Indian consumer. FSSAI needs to be more pro-active and efficient in dealing with safety by laying down strict safety standards for food articles: Bejon Kumar Misra

Last month, lead and monosodium glutamate (MSG) levels in Nestle’s Maggi noodles were discovered to be much higher than permissible limits. While the company results showed the opposite, it took them over three weeks to come up with a credible response. This is a classic case of lack of communication. But Nestle has now started the process of restoring credibility, though it could take Maggi at least a year to earn back the respect it had prior to this controversy.

Before we condemn Maggi, we need to understand that there is no zero lead product and that lead is allowed in most food products up to permissible limits. Lead is never added, it comes from inputs such as groundwater, etc. For Nestle, the prepared dishes and cooking aids segment, under which Maggi noodles are classified, accounted for R2,900 crore in sales in India during 2014 and grew at 9.7% during the year (based on a June 5 report by Motilal Oswal on Nestle). As things stand, the current crisis could knock off 40-50% of sales this year, but next year should be normal.

What Nestle should do now is introduce a credible brand ambassador who is not just a film star. It could be a well-known dietician or someone from the Indian Medical Association who can endorse the safety of the product. That will bring in a fair degree of consumer confidence in the product. Nestle also needs to emphasise through media, advertising and social media that it has been selling the product globally for years without any complaint.

It has to be taken into consideration that a Singapore laboratory has found Maggi noodles exported from India to be safe. After all, if a sample from India that has been tested in Singapore is safe, there should not be reason for worry. As we know, the permissible level of lead in noodles is 2.5 parts per million (ppm), while it is 10 ppm for seasoning. Going by the tests, the seasoning was at 4.5 ppm and noodles at 0.5 ppm. Nestle needs to emphasise that while lead levels in the seasoning are higher, the overall levels in the noodles once the seasoning is added are well within limits. That needs to be explained to people. After all, no one eats just the seasoning.

Nestle has already appealed against the order. Considering that people in the country have a great degree of confidence in the judicial system, if the court says that Nestle is right, it will restore a great degree of consumer confidence in the product.

Another thing that needs to be sorted out is common testing norms—be it government laboratories or companies. In fact, it is also high time that we listed out testing processes so as to avoid getting different results from different laboratories.

On the entire issue of MSG, what the government can do is check Nestle factories where it makes instant noodles to see if it is stocking MSG. If there is no MSG in the plants, then there is nothing to worry. That’s the quickest and surest way to understand if the product is being used in manufacturing Maggi noodles. I can cite the case of Britannia’s Arrowroot biscuits, where we used to source arrowroot from Kerala and stock it in the plants that made those biscuits.

While it is Nestle that is in trouble this time round, with consumers demanding quality food products, I foresee testing of food products to spread to a wider range of products. One area that could see immediate testing is snacks and bottled water. Apart from those companies that bottle it at source from streams in the mountains, all other bottled water companies source ground water and do reverse osmosis before bottling it. So I can see much more aggressive testing of bottled water samples in the not-too-distant future.

But one thing is sure. Companies would have learnt their lessons from this fiasco. In the future, companies will react much faster in case they face any such problems.

The author is founder and chairman, SKA Advisors

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