Things we can learn from the Maggi saga

The Maggi saga is making headlines all over the country for all the wrong reasons in the past few days. The allegation that Maggi noodles contain substances that could be harmful to health and is being consumed by our younger generation has started off a whole range of controversies on whether our new generation is eating the right food, the way ‘multinationals are fooling poor Indians’ and the role of film and sports personalities in promoting services and products through the mass media.

Allegations and counter-allegations will fly on both sides till the dust settles down either with efflux of time or court action a few decades later. Analysis of lead, monosodium glutamate and their presence in natural sources and the question of when and how they are toxic will be discussed ad nauseam. The most important question one hopes will be resolved now is, how does one establish the standards of foods and cosmetics in India. Everybody who has little or no knowledge will sell foodstuff, fairness creams and medical remedies without the slightest scientific and even hygienic background of the substance that he or she sells. The food regulatory authorities often go by the manufacturer’s claims and allow the product to hit the market. If any issue crops up later, they may take ‘we will cross bridges when we reach there.’

This attitude has seen a large number of foods and other articles coming into markets and unaware consumers merrily consuming them and landing themselves in grief. Regulatory authorities will always tell those willing to listen to them, that they are under-staffed, have no infrastructural support in the form of testing laboratories and no wherewithal to pick samples of products from across the country for testing these products. Hopefully, this should now be a thing of the past. The present crisis gives the authorities a strong case to improve both training of their cadre and staffing their laboratories with techno-savvy people.

One does not have to wait for a Bhopal gas tragedy type of situation for setting into motion a system that is clean, accountable and efficient. The situation should be a wake-up call for the entire advertising industry. For far too long have ads been taking consumers for a ride, when they claim that certain health products can increase height or improve the fairness of one’s skin.

Celebrities have no qualms in taking part in advertising alcoholic drinks, tobacco products and fairness creams under the pretext that ‘the product is licenced and available in the open market’. Film stars and sportsmen now better look over their shoulders as all and sundry are now asking questions like how a famous figure can promote a product of doubtful integrity. A famous ex-star even actively promoted a quack in Mumbai who was palming off products for a variety of diseases from cancer, arthritis and asthma!

Hopefully, the current controversy will throw light on the methods and standards laid down to certify goods and services sold to consumers. Proving the utility of a product has never ever been the criteria for its receiving a licence, except maybe in the pharma industry. Here too, drugs and potions selling under the guise of ‘herbal’ and ‘ayurvedic’ are allowed to be registered on the basis of their being cited in ‘ancient books’.

At par with the West?
Surely, science has taken giant leaps in the past few decades to help us break the shackles of such outdated thoughts in the treatment of the vulnerable and sick? Is ‘natural’ necessarily safe considering that there are dozens of substances in nature which are poisonous, eg. dhatura seeds and poisonous mushrooms.

We always like to say that India is at par with the West in most matters. The obvious exception to that statement would be in matters of safety – and what better example than the Maggi episode? If you watch an American ad on TV, there is inevitably a warning at the bottom which draws your attention to such ‘minor’ aspects like if your skin is sensitive, even a pain-relieving balm can cause immense harm.

Finally, the role of the judiciary. Peddling hazardous goods in the West attracts penalties which can send a company into liquidation and their owners or directors to jail. A recent example of a Canadian company fined $12 billion for selling tobacco products without adequate warning comes to mind. The consumer movement in America started in the 1960s when Ralph Nader wrote a series of articles entitled ‘Unsafe at any cost’ on vehicles manufactured by reputed car-makers which had very few safety devices to protect car occupants in case of an accident. The Indian judiciary now has a chance to set an example to the country as a whole, on laying down the norms on how products should be manufactured, the role of the regulatory bodies in supervising and certifying these products, and the limits to which the advertising industry can push these products. This should then be followed by heavy penalties to which manufacturers and service providers should be subject to, if and when they break the law.

Such an event occurred twice in the last few decades when the courts laid down the standards for compensation which sent chills down the spines of the perpetrators: the Bhopal gas tragedy verdict and the Vishakha case order in a sexual harassment case. The time is ripe for another landmark judgment on standards in public life.

(The writer is Honorary Secretary, Consumer Guidance Society of India, Mumbai)

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