The sudden excitement over Maggi marks a great stride forward for health enforcement in India, as state after state moves to investigate and perhaps prevent the sale of instant noodles. For the first time, in a country where unsafe food is so commonplace that resulting deaths may go unreported, we hear talk of class action suits. The idea remains slightly mysterious, of course—since hundreds of millions of people may have eaten Maggi, will they all become parties to the matter? Besides, the legal action threatened against brand ambassadors Amitabh Bachchan, Preity Zinta and Madhuri Dixit is absurd. What were they supposed to do? Perform chemical assays for lead and monosodium glutamate before signing up? And now, will all media where Maggi ads have ever appeared be sued for promoting a dangerous substance?
Indeed, this is the most curious point about the whole affair. Unless Maggi’s production processes or feedstock have altered dramatically, the product has been of unacceptable quality for quite some time, without the food safety authorities getting at all agitated about it. Now that they have woken up, they may wish to show some curiosity about the source of the excessive levels of lead that they have detected in Maggi. If it comes from the grains or condiments in ingredients, they are likely to exist in other foods in which they are inputs. In 2010, there was much excitement in the US when researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health and Children’s Hospital Boston investigated multiple cases of lead poisoning among Indian-origin children. A quarter of spice and condiment samples collected from Indian shops, especially chilli powder, cardamom and fenugreek, had unacceptable levels of lead. However, they had been deemed acceptable by the authorities in South Asia, from where they were shipped.
The spice study in Boston was a big deal in America, but does the Indian public care very much about such issues?
Air and water quality have been central to the public discourse for years, but a pollution issue has never figured prominently in any party’s manifesto. The current government did underline the need to clean up the Ganga, but it sounds more like a culturally motivated beautification project than a public health initiative. The controversy over GM crops in the 1990s exercised hearts and minds much more powerfully.
But non-Frankenstein foods are not very emotive, even when they are of dangerous provenance or have been grown unnaturally. Shoppers are surprisingly unanxious about the seasonal kakri (‘snake cucumber’, Cucumis melo) which is grown in the flood plains of rivers whose waters are famed for their heavy metal content, industrial effluents and high levels of coliform bacteria from untreated sewage.
Similarly, there is absolutely no public anxiety about the common practice of accelerating the ripening of fruit after picking by the use of acetylene gas, derived from calcium carbide. Generally, fruit which looks perfectly ripe but tastes unexpectedly bland has enjoyed the attentions of carbide. This method of ripening has been known from 1962, when ethylene was identified as the ‘ripening hormone’ in a paper by Stanley P Burg and Ellen A Burg in Plant Physiology, the journal of the American Society of Plant Biologists.
Acetylene gas, used in welding torches, has an analogous effect on fruit, but the calcium carbide from which it derives is carcinogenic and contains traces of phosphorus and arsenic which make it unsuitable for use in the food industry. It is banned under the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act and safety regulations flowing from it.
However, carbide is freely available in local markets under the generic name ‘masala’, and is popular since it increases margins in the fruit business. Fruit is picked half-raw since it ships with less spoilage to distant markets. On arrival, it is rapidly ripened with carbide before sale. It looks excellent but since the process is only analogous to the working of the natural hormone, ethylene, the product isn’t half as good and may contain toxic impurities.
The concerted action against Maggi by a series of state governments, and the talk of class actions against the manufacturer, Nestle, may signal India’s graduation from the Indira-era concern of the prevention of adulteration to the wider question of food safety as a component of public health and nutritional policy. But is a nation which routinely accepts dangerous processes like the use of carbide in ripening and the cultivation of fresh produce on possibly toxic land ready for the promotion? Even governments can’t see beyond Maggi. They are tightly focused on testing and banning the product, and appear to have no curiosity about the origin of the toxic levels of lead, which may derive from feedstock which is used in other products manufactured or marketed by other companies. The larger objective of public health would be poorly served by such a single-point agenda.