As Maggi affair nears a conclusion, questions need to be asked

By RJ Whitehead

- Last updated on GMT

As Maggi affair nears a conclusion, questions need to be asked

Related tags Food safety Maggi noodles Bombay high court Food

Over the last few days it feels like we’ve written about little more than the Maggi noodles affair in India. Thankfully it is now reaching a conclusion. But still it raises some vitally important questions that must surely be addressed.

The story has been told often this week, so we won’t repeat it here. But for those who have not followed the saga, a timeline of events can be found here.

Key events in the Maggi affair

Indians must now face up to a number of issues and pose some serious questions of their regulator.

For a start, why did the Uttar Pradesh food safety authority, the UP FDA, which first claimed to have found adulterants in samples of Maggi noodles, feel compelled to pronounce so publicly its initial findings in such strong and emotive language?

Maggi instant noodles contained dangerous amount of lead and MSG​,” one senior UP official told Reuters at the time. ”Our experts conducted several tests and each time the results were shocking​.”

In most cases, one would hope the regulators would work with a company in Nestlé’s position through the early stages of the case to ascertain the facts. Instead, it seemed that state officials were queueing up to go on the record.

Why then, when there was no consensus among Indian state regulators over the putative adulteration, did the national regulator, the FSSAI, side with the UP FDA and others who claimed Nestlé had transgressed, whereas some, including the Maharashtra FDA, had given Maggi a clean chit? 

Surely, if there wasn’t widespread agreement among state food testing labs, the decision to force Nestlé to pull its noodles was therefore based on conjecture. This turned out to be a very expensive hunch if you consider the trillions of rupees it has likely cost the company in waste, lost business and damage to reputation.

From this, Indians should now ask what exactly defines the role of the apex food regulator. They should also question why the FSSAI would allow such a clearly disjointed system to continue to operate. 

According to industry expert Sunil Alagh, in an interview with CNBC-TV18: “There is an acute need to streamline testing processes in [India]. If this was the US, the company would've sued the government for billions of dollars [for harming Nestlé's reputation]​.”

Moreover, one former FSSAI head even called the process “high handed and done in a hurry​”.

Why was the provision of natural justice not followed? Under the Food Safety and Standards Act 2006, Section 18, the processes the regulator must follow are spelled out. Its provisions state that the regulator cannot ban a product on the strength of a simple test report. First, the company should be given an improvement notice; only then, if there is no resolution, can the regulator take coercive measures.

Staying with processes, why did Nestlé’s counsel allege that Maggi’s product application stated that the noodle cake and tastemaker—the two components of the snack—were to be tested separately for monosodium glutamate?

The Swiss multinational refuted this, arguing that if this were the case, the two could not be considered to be in the same category under the Food Safety and Standards (Contaminants, Toxins and Residues) Regulations, 2011.

According to Nestlé, the noodle cake would come under the “Foods not specified​” category, while the tastemaker would be under the “Dehydrated onions, dry herb spices and flavouring​” category. Each of these groups has a different regulatory limit for lead content.

It argued that the lead content of both ingredients combined should be what was measured for real-world benefit. However, Indian food safety authorities took a different, less reasonable line, insisting the lead levels of each component should be within the individual set limits.

[The regulators] didn’t even bother to mix it​,” Aalagh said afterwards. “You eat that seasoning alone, you will have upset stomach in any case​.”

And why were the FSSAI and the government so arrogant that they would not accept Nestlé’s own test results, which the company claimed had been carried out on 2,700 samples, including 1,100 samples at independent accredited labs in India and abroad, as an indication that they were on the wrong track? A company of Nestlé's size and scale could call on resources and equipment far beyond the means even of India's regulators.

Moreover, why did the authorities dismiss test results from Singapore, Australia, Britain and the United States, carried out independently by bodies like the US FDA with strong reputations for food safety?

We have been in intensive discussions with the authorities to clarify and show our arguments and our tests​,” Paul Bulcke, Nestlé’s global chief executive, said in frustration back in June.

Could this be arrogance on the government’s part? Perhaps the same sort of arrogance that would lead a government to go to the unprecedented lengths of suing a food business for “unfair trade practices and defective and hazardous products have caused injury to millions of consumers​”, as its complaint was worded.

In January this year, samples of milk were collected by the Ghaziabad FDA from Mother Dairy and sent for testing. Preliminary results suggested detergent and frozen fat were present in them.

In this case, Mother Dairy challenged the official reports and was granted a review of the samples at a different food laboratory. Embarrassingly, the samples returned yesterday, on the day Bombay high court was delivering its decision, and were marked “unsafe for human consumption​”. 

Why was Mother Dairy’s milk not withdrawn just as Maggi noodles were in June? Could it be because Mother Dairy was a government-owned co-operative?

And where does all this fit in with prime minister Narendra Modi’s much vaunted “Make in India​" initiative, a central policy that is being touted to increase the country's lagging productivity?

That’s a tricky one because on the one side, Modi no doubt wants to promote the credentials of Indian companies over those from overseas even if, like Nestlé India, such multinationals have been in the country for over 30 years. On the other, he desperately needs businesses to set up base in India through foreign direct investment to set food processing off on a path of lightning growth.

This last point is pure conjecture, but no doubt many people will have a view on it. The government did seem seem happy, though, to have taken the dramatic action of suing a food company for damages when it really should have stepped in to calm the situation down.

On this point, why must Nestlé still face the consumer affairs ministry in court over the US$99m class action lawsuit the government has instigated? 

While the Bombay high court made its ruling on the safety of the noodles, the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission, a semi-judicial body, will now decide on Nestlé’s alleged mislabelling of Maggi noodles to say the product contained “No added MSG​”. 

While the case looks pretty solid for Nestlé to those who understand the difference between “added MSG​” and “natural MSG​”, it is certainly no formality.

International food companies in India, and those considering investing in the country, will be deeply concerned about this precedent. 

Indeed, The Washington Post​ reported last month how one Indian insurer, Bajaj Allianz General Insurance, had been predicting a tenfold jump in product insurance sales, with more makers of food, beverages and cosmetics seeking cover for regulatory risks like recalls.

This is the first time the manufacturers have been shaken up so much​,” the insurer told the Post​. “Earlier, they thought such a thing would never happen to them. Now, everyone is keener to buy this policy​.”

As the affair has progressed, Hindustan Unilever, India’s biggest consumer-goods company, said in June that it would be withdrawing its Knorr range of Chinese instant noodles; days later, Starbucks’s Indian made a similar pronouncement, adding that it was working “diligently​” with the FSSAI on pending applications for approval.

It is to be seen to what lengths the regulator will now go in a bid to re-establish its reputation after the maulings it has received this year.

Instead of Nestlé, perhaps it is time for India’s feckless food regulator to get its comeuppance. 

Maybe that is what food processing minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal, who welcomed the Bombay high court verdict, was alluding to when she told a conference in New Delhi that the FSSAI had created an “environment of fear​” in the industry, with its actions discouraging new product development.

"Without mentioning the big elephant in the room of the food processing industry, the FSSAI, I would say that a lot needs to be done to remove the recent road blocks​,” Harsimrat said cryptically.

It needs to streamline its regulations and provisions as its steps are stopping innovations in the processing sector​.”

At the same time, she announced a task force to look into regulatory issues, among others, to “analyse existing impediments and bottlenecks​”.

Those hopeful that the cabinet minister’s words might signal a reform of this failing public body shouldn’t begin celebrating just yet as the FSSAI comes under the authority of the health ministry, not Harsimrat’s food processing department.

A canny politician, it is still likely that she picked her words very carefully. Maybe it is now time for the regulator to start looking over its shoulder the way it has been forcing the companies it oversees to do over the last year.

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1 comment


Posted by Ajoy Daspurkayastha,

The father of
the Indian nation Mahatma Gandhi (Bapu) once related customer with business as follows: ----“A customer is the most important
visitor on our premises. He is not dependent on us. We are dependent on him. He
is not an interruption of our work. He is the purpose of it. He is not an
outsider of our business. He is part of it. We are not doing him a favour by
serving him. He is doing us a favour by giving us the opportunity to do so.”

Telephone,Internet and the reinvented world of food safety in india

Today children,youths,adults are well informed due to excellent mass media coverage
and fantastic internet capabilities specially in India where tele-link has
reached 1 billion mark is an enviable growth in the tele-link revolution as started in a revolutionary way by Mr. Kabindra Purkayastha , the then Telecommunications Minister of India and furthered the progress at jet-speed by the present Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad for achieving 1 billion mark and revolutionise the same in Cities, towns and many parts of rural areas of India.

"Today, nearly 65 percent of the 232 million internet users in India are connecting via smartphones. These users can even leverage their food safety woes--- be it for noodles, be it for chocolates, be it for bread, be it for masala or, be it for infant foods, be it foods related to Infant formulae ,Follow-up formulae ,Formulae for special medical purposes for infants, Complementary foods for infants and young children- for that matter for any apparently erring processed foods when they are noticed after studying the apparently observed mirepresented label declaration even to the extent that ingredients presented on the label looks like not in chronological order in terms of the probable higher percentage to lower percentage fashion---EXAMPLE--writing Potassium sorbate(preservative) before Glyceryl Monostearate (emulsifier) in BREAD--- and or, something wrong feeling coming out of tongue-taste or, aggressive claim of health benefits out of that processed food which apparently looks suspicious-----------can connect through 'What say’------India’s first-ever social polling app or, for that matter any food safety related APP that you—through crowd-funding will like to give birth to a FOOD SAFETY APP COMPANY where you can earn revenues from the advertisements given by FOOD SAFETY SMART FOOD COMPANIES on your FOOD SAFETY APP or, any Consumer Organization may like to develop, the way they will like to do so ---(while the food safety intelligence department of FSSAI under the Consumer Affairs Ministry can regularly visit the 'What say’ and receive the

consumer-complaint specially in a situation when unlike SEC. 402. EMPLOYEE PROTECTIONS of FDA(USA) Food Safety Modernization Act P.L. 111-353
January 4, 2011 US Dept of Labour Notification no such provivion exist in india as on today . Based on the facts gathered from the APP---FSSAI or, respective Food Commissioners of the respective Indian states can put “ Food Inspectors on Alert-mode” -----speak volumes in itself that India’s most prudent food safety policy regarding food additives reflects Mahatma Gandhi(Bapu)’s nation building dream through the child health empowerment philosophy which respects the precautionary principles of food safety for health and well-being of the children in the republic of India has the blessings of the consumers like that of yours..

Just type"Lead poisoning in
foods or, MSG in noodles and food safety " in the google and huge
informations will be available before your eyes within seconds .

In fact today's consumers are not
only well informed about the food safety problems they are facing in day to day
life but they can take an informed decision after gathering all the pertinent
facts relating the food safety problem of any particular type of processed
foods including noodles.

Today's consumers of processed foods
including instant foods inspite of their busy schedule and shortage of time to
cook, will always reject any controversial processed foods and even seek for an
expert advise on the matter which most of the times are available freely on the
web with a click from their finger on the mobile phone having hi-fi/internet connectivity.

So. building brand loyalty of a popular
food 20 years before and now are not the same.

Honesty is the best policy and if
there is any lapses on the part of the manufacturers then it is better to admit
rather than to dispute without any solid reason.

Example : Nestle in India or,
elsewhere,do not have any flour milling company and whatever wheat flour Nestle
procures that will be from local sources only and it is quite likely that there
may be lead contamination in the food chain from the flour mill itself and presumably the flour mill do not have sophisticated lab facilities to test lead content in wheat flour.
Most possibly no lead residues in flour was checked batch by batch in all flours from all the flour mills of India apparently meant for Maggi noodles producing plants in India.

So, building consumer trust through
product capabilities and giving a fresh thought about product storage conditions
in shops, retails, houses everywhere in summer months temperature rise to even more that 37 degree centigrade .like
an incubator and in rainy season the relative humidity could be more than 75%,
very adverse storage conditions persist for rapid product deterioration in a situation where apparently the possibility of WVTR(Water Vapour Transmission Rate) of the package/film meant for Maggi packaging becoming “ZERO” is apparently a remote possibility.

Moreover in the reverse printed
polypropylene package ink-seepage can happen in aforesaid adverse conditions
and lead from the ink can contaminate the product.

So, in harsh, weather conditions in
India,Maggi fall prey to easy product deterioration and contamination unless
and until a superior technology of preservation is brought in from Nestlé's
Product Technology Development Centre .

The nation-wide advertisement of
Maggi ---“TASTE BHI HEALTH BHI” looks like a bad-dream and the recapitulation
value of that TV Adv. is obviously much in negative and in many folds.

Childhood lead poisoning has attracted the attention of Indian Forensic Medical Toxicologists and here below are the brilliant eye-opening example against the “TASTE BHI HEALTH BHI---Adv.”

QUOTE---CHILDHOOD LEAD POISONING - A REVIEW---UNQUOTE as appeared in the J Punjab Acad Forensic Med Toxicol 2015;15(1) is a praiseworthy review-article published by Bhullar DS, Associate Professor (D)*

Thind AS, Professor and Head, Singla A, Junior Resident* Department of Forensic Medicine & Toxicology, Government Medical College & Rajindra Hospital Patiala (Punjab) India

The another point of view was to do a system-check about the
truthfulness in advertisement on the processed food is a minimum must because
from overall business point of view any departure or, deviation from that can ultimately not only erode a food consumer brand drastically beyond the expectations of seasoned Marketing Gurus but also in disguise apparently can damage the health of the innocent childrens , youths and adults alike resulting into the damage of the health of the nation as a whole which can cost the country in billions of dollars even after a long time health suffering of irrepairable loss .

Today’s(29th July2015)Cabinet’s approval of Consumer Protection Bill is a welcome praiseworthy move with a view to make changes in Consumer Protection Act. 1986 including the liability provisions for the substandard goods and services.

The bill is likely to be placed by the consumer affairs, food and public distribution in the monsoon session of parliament. The bill is likely to create a Central Consumer Protection Authority(CCPA) to investigate into the unfair trade practices and check misleading advertisements, initiate action and order recall or replacement of defective products.

India urgently needs a “National policy on “Processed foods advertisement SPECIALLY FOR CHILDREN—the most vulnerable group in our society”


QUOTE--- U.S. Seeks New Limits on Food Ads for Children


QUOTE--- The federal government proposed sweeping new guidelines on Thursday that could push the food industry to overhaul how it advertises cereal, soda pop, snacks, restaurant meals and other foods to children.

Citing an epidemic of childhood obesity, regulators are taking aim at a range of tactics used to market foods high in sugar, fat or salt to children, including the use of cartoon characters like Toucan Sam, the brightly colored Froot Loops pitchman, who appears in television commercials and online games as well as on cereal boxes.----- UNQUOTE

In the monsoon session of parliament, during the discussins on Consumer Protection Bill “Processed foods advertisement SPECIALLY FOR CHILDREN—the most vulnerable group in our society” can be given special focus or, attention so that they are fully covered in the totality of its own to protect the public health and safety of the childrens of india---and gets very much including as the special provision in the Consumer Protection Act and the provision for the full administrative machinery is made in the proposed Central Consumer Protection Authority(CCPA) to investigate into the unfair trade practices and check misleading advertisements pertaining to the health and well-being of the children , initiate action and order recall or replacement of defective products as the case may be from time to time depending on the complaints raised by the respective complainants—be it a consumer(child’s parents on behalf of child) or, a children’s organization or, consumer organization as a whole.




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