Nestle India got it out of the blue right in the neck. The “blue” in this surprising event was the innocuous state of Uttar Pradesh (UP). A stray safety test of Nestlé’s 2-Minute Noodles yielded lead content far too excess in proportion than what was permissible. And all hell broke loose – for Nestle India.
Food safety has never been an issue in India. Here checking for adulteration and contamination to ensure safety has all along been non-existent. Everything, from cooking oil to lentils and from milk to spices used to be adulterated. None ever intervened – neither the municipality nor the government.
Adulterated stuff was taken as a given, there were no two ways about it. People bought their rations – those days there weren’t many packaged products - cleaned them as well as they could and consumed them. When one would buy a sack of wheat it had to be washed and tediously checked for small pieces of stones that were added to ensure that every quintal had less of wheat and a substantial amount of gravel. Gravel seemed to be omnipresent in all the grains, lentils and rice. Even at the flour mill one’s good wheat would be mixed with inferior quality wheat and what one got was flour that was not entirely of one’s good-quality wheat. All the time, wholesalers, retailers and millers were short-changing the customers but no enforcement authority, if at all there was one more than half a century ago, ever took notice of it. The concept of consumer rights was then way out in the future.
The retailers would buy from wholesalers and then display the grains and spices in half-open sacks. One had no clue about what all had gone into those heaps of grains and ground spices, especially the latter – coriander, red chilies, cumin seeds and so on. One had to, therefore, buy them whole and then grind them, if necessary, at home. About 40 years ago a Delhi newspapers splashed a warning for consumers on its front page about the adulterants that were found in spices like coriander powder which had dried and powdered horse dung, powdered red chilies that had powdered brick, powdered cumin seeds had saw dust, black pepper corns were mixed with papaya seeds etc. The same, perhaps, is largely true even today when these are sold loose.
The advent of packaged food somewhat mitigated the prevailing distrust against the food items that one bought off a grocer. These were claimed to be select items of grains and lentils, cleaned and sifted before packaging or of spices – whole or powdered. More expensive than what was available at the grocers’, packaged food products were even taxed by certain state governments that took them far away from the reach of the common man. However, soon the rising middle classes increasingly became wholly dependent on them with the proliferation of hassle-free packaged food items and emergence of better and modern outlets. Many multinationals and domestic big corporate houses got into the act as business was booming. Not only the traditional grains and spices, even the new-kid-on-the-block, the breakfast cereal, emerged as a winner with increasing consciousness of common folk towards a healthy and nutritious diet. Currently, a whole new range of packaged grains cereals, spices and half-cooked foods are available in the markets – from parathas (Indian pan cakes) to potato crispies, shami and seekh kebabs to yoghurt, etc.
All these became popular in modern kitchens as the Indian woman progressively was no longer what she used to be – home and kitchen-bound. She too was out on the workplace like her man and had very little time for the regular chores of the kitchen. Increasing westernization of the Indian lifestyle, therefore, bestowed an important position to the packaged food industry in most households. Whatever they put on the store shelves were picked up without any questions being asked, generally, for the reason that large and reputed industrial houses were involved. It was their brand value that sold the items. Ever more, the government enacted laws that made it mandatory to list the ingredients with their respective quantities and caloric values and also mention “sell by date” or “best before” a specified date for information of the buyers. All this enhanced the credibility of all that was offered in attractive packages. The consumer was happy and things were hunky dory for the manufacturers.
That is, until Nestle’s Maggie 2-Minute Noodles exploded all around! Of all the states it was in generally sleepy UP where 17.2 ppm of lead that was reported in a sample of 2-minute Maggi Noodles – seven times the permissible limit. The media went to town and Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) commenced investigations holding a microscope. That is when they found excessive amount of lead, i.e. more than 2.5 ppm and misleading labeling in the package that indicated “No added MSG”. Another slip that was found was regarding the product “Maggi Oats Masala Noodles” that was introduced without product approval.
No final word has been pronounced yet by the FSSAI as Nestle is still arguing out the matter with the authorities. But several states had packets of Maggi noodles tested for lead and possible presence of MSG – a chemical that is generally added for flavour. Some of them found excessive lead and promptly banned the product. That is when the herd mentality took over and state after state issued ban orders although UP, where it all began, is yet to ban it, waiting as it is for the test report. In the meantime, Maggi Noodles have been trashed not only in India but in places where Nestle India was exporting them like the US, Singapore, Australia etc. In the country all nine variants of the stuff have been recalled – marking a first ever instance of product recall. Nestle India is reportedly going to take a hit of Rs. 320 crores.
The fallout has been immense. While the consumers’ trust has been betrayed, the entire packaged food industry has been rattled. FSSAI has ordered testing of noodles, pasta and macaroni of all brands. The earlier disdain for the prevailing laws and requirements seems to have disappeared. Tata Starbucks has decided to suspend a dozen ingredients it uses in its coffee pending approval from the food safety outfit. Another multinational, Hindustan Lever, has withdrawn all its Knorr Chinese range of noodles as the product was yet to receive approval. ITC, another biggy in the industry, has ordered more tests of its products, presumably to conform to the requirements of regulations. The upshot is, if the government is tough everybody, howsoever big, falls in line.
Hopefully, this is only the beginning. A country is reckoned as civilized only if its food is safe. Not only many more packaged stuff need to be looked at for breaches of standards, there is also a whole world of cooked stuff that is dished out to unwary citizens from hotels, restaurants, dhabas and from the street kiosks that need constant checking. Having scant regards for consumer rights, they more often dish out poison. Upholding the rights of consumers to pure, wholesome food, the state needs to clean up the unholy mess.