A long haul ahead for Nestle India to win back trust

A long haul ahead for Nestle India to win back trust

In March 2014, V K Pandey, a food safety and drug administration officer in Uttar Pradesh's Barabanki, picked up 15 samples of Maggi noodles for a routine test on conformity with standards prescribed by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI).

The yellow coloured packs had ‘No Added MSG’ stamped on them prominently. The samples were sent to a laboratory in Gorakhpur for testing. The lab found monosodium glutamate (MSG), a taste enhancer, in the noodle samples and duly informed Nestle India, the manufacturer, about its findings to give them an opportunity to challenge the test. In July last year, Nestle appealed against the tests and sought fresh tests at the central lab in Kolkata. These tests in the Kolkata lab took almost nine months to complete.

To Nestle’s dismay, Kolkata’s Central Food Laboratory tested samples in April and found presence of lead at 17.2 parts per million, way beyond the permissible limits of 2.5 ppm. The results that became public last month had a cascading effect with several states banning the popular comfort food.

The FSSAI on Friday said laboratory tests had found overwhelming evidence that Maggi noodles were “unsafe and hazardous” for human consumption. It also issued a show cause notice to Nestle why the product approval for all the nine noodle variants be not withdrawn.

Following a meeting with FSSAI officials, Nestle India, the Indian subsidiary of the Switzerland headquartered food and beverages multinational, decided to withdraw Maggi noodles off the shelves “despite the product being safe”. The FSSAI order came as several states banned Maggi noodles after samples tested found MSG and lead beyond permissible limits.

The Gorakhpur lab results would have attracted a case of mis-branding against Nestle. The lab had found MSG in the sample it had tested whereas the noodle packet clearly mentioned ‘No added MSG’. What sent alarm bells ringing was the presence of lead beyond permissible limits in the same sample that was tested in the central laboratory at Kolkata.

MSG is a flavour enhancer commonly added to Chinese food, canned vegetables, soups and processed meats. Though the food ingredient is “generally recognised as safe”, food standards world over make it mandatory for manufacturers to list it on the label if it is added to the food product.

A small percentage of people do report adverse reactions to food containing MSG. These reactions – known as the MSG symptom complex – include headache, flushing, sweating, facial pressure or tightness, numbness, tingling or burning in the face, neck and other areas, heart palpitations, chest pain, nausea and weakness.

The Mayo Clinic, a US-based nonprofit medical research group, however, states that these symptoms are based on anecdotal reports and researchers have not found any definitive evidence of a link between the MSG and these symptoms.

On the other hand, Nestle claims that it does not add flavour enhancer MSG to Maggi noodles in India. However, the product contains glutamate from hydrolysed groundnut protein, onion powder and wheat flour. Glutamate produces a positive result in a test for MSG, it said.

Lead, a naturally occurring toxic metal, may have made its way to the noodle pack through the raw materials. The human body does not require any lead. According to the World Health Organisation, lead, if consumed, is distributed to the brain, kidneys, liver and bones.

The WHO document states that lead stored in bone may be remobilised into the blood during pregnancy, thus exposing the foetus. Undernourished children are more susceptible to lead because their bodies absorb more lead if other nutrients, such as calcium, are lacking. 

High level of exposure to lead, particularly in children, may affect the brain and the central nervous system and cause coma, convulsions and even death. Children who survive severe lead poisoning may be left with mental retardation and behavioural disruption.

Permissible levels

The Food Safety and Standards (Contaminants, Toxins and Residues) Regulations, 2011 peg the permissible levels of lead in the range of 0.2 parts per million in infant milk substitute and infant foods to 10 ppm in categories like baking powder, tea, dehydrated onions, dried herbs and spices flavourings. For instant noodles – under the ‘foods not specified’ category – the permitted limit of lead is 2.5 ppm.

The Kolkata lab report found “very high quantities” of lead – 17.2 parts per million – according to the Uttar Pradesh food authorities. On its part, Nestle claims that it regularly monitors all raw materials for lead, including testing by accredited laboratories. “These tests have consistently shown lead in Maggi noodles to be within safe limits,” it said.
The Maggi controversy also raises questions over food regulatory mechanism in India as it has emerged that the noodle samples and the re-tests were conducted over a nine-month period. By the time the Kolkata lab carried out the noodle samples were already beyond the ‘best before’ date.

Also, there was little clarity on the manner in which the samples were stored. Nestle, during its meeting with the FSSAI officials, also raised this issue. Still, Nestle appears to be on a weaker wicket with regard to the FSSAI charge of releasing the Oats Masala noodle variant without getting it assessed for risk and safety and grant of product approval.

With the clear order by the FSSAI to recall all variants of Maggi noodles, Nestle India appears set for a long haul to convince the regulator of the safety of the
product and win back the trust of the consumers.

Narendra Modi or Rahul Gandhi? Who will win the battle royale of the Lok Sabha Elections 2019

Get real-time news updates, views and analysis on Lok Sabha Elections 2019 on Deccanherald.com/news/lok-sabha-elections-2019 

Like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter and Instagram with #DHPoliticalTheatre for live updates on the Indian general elections 2019.

Comments (+)