Maggi: Two-minute turmoil

In soup: There is no finality on the Maggi controversy some three weeks after it first surfaced

Maggi: Two-minute turmoil
Over the last 2-3 weeks, no day passed without some development being reported on Nestle’s Maggi noodles. Several states banned the popular brand while a few others gave a clean chit. This meant that there were conflicting claims on the safety aspects of the noodle brand. The Centre did little to clear the air as the test results remain opaque and are not available in public domain…

For someone sailing the high seas or trekking the high mountains, Maggi noodles was the favourite instant snack to beat the hunger pangs. Alas, these would now be the moments to cherish – at least for the time being. The Maggi story received a huge setback when a Kolkata food safety lab found lead beyond permissible limits in the samples of the two-minute snack it had tested in April this year. Reports of the “failed” tests appearing in a section of the media set off a chain of events with several state governments putting the ubiquitous noodle packs under the food safety scanner.

The food safety tests had mixed results. The Central Food Laboratory at Kolkata said tests had revealed presence of 17.2 parts per million of lead, way beyond the permissible limit of 2.5 ppm.

Caught off-guard by the sudden turn of events, Nestle India also ordered independent tests and found its products safe for consumption. Nestle officials argued that the samples tested by the Central Food Laboratory,  Kolkata, were beyond the expiry date. The FSSAI, however, did not buy the argument.

The Maggi saga began in March last year when Barabanki-based food inspector of the Uttar Pradesh Food and Drug Administration V K Pandey picked up 15 samples of noodles manufactured in January 2014  for routine tests for conformity with standards prescribed by the food regulator. Tests conducted at the Gorakhpur laboratory in March revealed presence of monosodium glutamate (MSG), contrary to what was mentioned on the packet.

Nestle India challenged the findings and demanded a referral of the impugned samples to the Central Food Laboratory, Kolkata. The results of the tests on samples under question came in April this year and showed presence of lead way beyond the permissible limits in addition to presence of MSG.

The discovery of high-level of lead set the alarm bells ringing prompting the UP government to order recall of the faulty batches of the noodles. Nestle officials took the plea that the batch under question was already beyond its expiry date and there were little chances of it being sold by retailers.

The controversy soon assumed gargantuan proportion with Food and Consumer Affairs Minister Ramvilas Paswan rooting for action against Nestle in the interest of consumers as state after state found lead beyond permissible limits in the noodles brand.

The Delhi government was the first to declare that 10 of the 13 samples it had tested had excess lead. The panic spread prompting Kerala, Uttarakhand and Gujarat to ban Maggi noodles and put other brands under scanner. Eight states have followed suit since then and nine others were testing the samples.

Sensing that the situation was going out of hand, Nestle flew in its Geneva-based global CEO Paul Bulcke and recently appointed Managing Director of Nestle Sri Lanka Shivani Hegde for damage control operations. They first issued orders for independent testing of samples and equipped with “noodles safe for consumption” reports, met the FSSAI officials.

Hours of deliberations with the regulators brought the differences to the fore. While Nestle agreed to drop the ‘No added MSG’ labelling from Maggi packs, the regulators still differed on the methodology for carrying out the tests. Neither Nestle nor FSSAI were ready to budge. The next day – June 5 – the FSSAI ordered a nation-wide recall of nine variants of Maggi noodles and sought response from Nestle within 15 days as to why the product approvals granted for Maggi noodles should not be withdrawn.

Nestle asserted that the noodle cake and the tastemaker should be mixed before testing the sample because that is how the product is consumed. The FSSAI, however, had tested the noodle cake and tastemaker separately and argued that if the two items are packed separately, it required to be tested separately.

Both Nestle and FSSAI are seen as being correct in sticking to their stand as the food safety and standards law talks only about testing samples, but is silent on the protocol to be adopted for it. In the absence of clarity, Nestle approached the Bombay High Court seeking a review of the order passed by the FSSAI. But the court, on Friday, declined stay.

Surprisingly, at the jam-packed press conference on June 5, Nestle’s global CEO Paul Bulcke stressed repeatedly that the controversy surrounding Maggi noodles was all because of some confusion. He also said the food regulator had not shared with Nestle the results and the methodology followed to test the samples.

Transparency issue

“The reports of tests conducted by FSSAI are neither in the public domain nor circulated informally,” said an industry source. One gets to know about the “high-level” of lead only in the FSSAI order and some quotes attributed to government functionaries.

Also, Nestle has been claiming that Maggi samples sent by the UP officials to the Kolkata lab were not stored properly. The samples were “exposed to the elements”, Nestle told the Bombay High Court indicating that as the reason for contamination. Moreover, the samples were also beyond the expiry date when the tests were conducted.

This again brings into picture the need for a standardised testing protocol with clear codes on the manner in which the tests are to be carried out and stored.

Other possible sources of lead contamination could be through packaging, colouring agents used in the tastemaker, machinery used in the manufacturing process or through water. The most common source of lead contamination is lead paints, recycling of lead batteries and old plumbing material. According to the World Health Organisation, excess lead can damage the nervous and reproductive systems, the kidneys and it can cause high blood pressure and anaemia.

Another point highlighted in the Maggi debate is the comparison of products manufactured by multinationals with that of the street vendor. However, this argument does not stand as it would amount to comparing apples and oranges. Products such as Maggi are manufactured by an organised industry while street vending is largely an individual venture limited to a particular area.

The controversy also brings into focus the different standards multinationals tend to adhere to in developing countries. Nestle has vehemently rejected suggestions to this effect by asserting in the Bombay High Court that Maggi was not a failed product thrust on a third world country. On the brighter side, the controversy provides an opportunity to both the government and the industry to reassure the consumers on food safety.

HOW MAGGI GOT INTO A SOUP

March 2014: Uttar Pradesh Food & Drug Administration tests Maggi noodles, finds high level of monosodium glutamate
July 2014: Nestle challenges test results; Samples sent to Central Food
Testing Lab in Kolkata for further tests
April 2015: Kolkata lab finds lead beyond permissible limits, in addition to MSG
May 20: UP orders recall of batch of Maggi noodles containing dangerous lead levels
May 21: Nestle India, in a Facebook post, says no recall or ban of Maggi
noodles; Says product safe for consumption
May 25: Consumer Affairs Minister Ramvilas Paswan says government will review reports about high-level of lead and MSG Maggi noodles
May 29: Film star Madhuri Dixit gets FDA notice for endorsing Maggi
May 30: UP food regulator FSDA files cases against Nestle India and five
others; A local advocate filed a separate case against Amitabh Bachchan,
Madhuri Dixit and Preity Zinta
June 1: Nestle India maintains lead in tested Maggi samples is within safe limits;  Maggi brand ambassadors, including Madhuri, warned of action if their advertisements are found to be misleading
June 2: Bihar court orders FIR against Maggi brand ambassadors Bachchan, Madhuri and Preity Zinta and two Nestle officials
    Kerala decides to withdraw Maggi, bakeries not to sell any noodle
    After lab tests, Maggi samples found unsafe in Delhi
    Maggi samples sent for lab testing in Gujarat
June 3: Delhi government bans Maggi for 15 days. Other instant noodles brand to face test
    Army and Navy canteens asked to set aside Maggi stocks
    Assam, West Bengal send Maggi samples for tests.
    Centre refers Maggi issue to the consumer panel to take appropriate action: Paswan
June 4:     Maggi banned for one month in Gujarat, Uttarakhand
         Puducherry, Arunachal send Maggi noodles samples for tests
June 5:  FSSAI orders nationwide recall of nine variants of Maggi noodles; Nestle global CEO Paul Bulcke claims Maggi noodles safe; Blames recall on “confusion”
June 11: Nestle India moves Bombay HC, seeks judicial review of FSSAI order
June 12: Bombay High Court declines stay on FSSAI order


Result of tests ordered by state governments

State    Lead content (max limit 2.5 ppm)

Uttar Pradesh (referred to
    Central Food Lab, Kolkata)    17.2 ppm
Gujarat    5 ppm
Delhi    10 of the 13 samples have high level of lead
Assam    Found high level of lead
Uttarakhand    No lead
Maharashtra    Above permissible limits
Kerala    Within permissible limits
Goa    Within permissible limits
West Bengal    Within permissible limits


Noodles/Pastas under FSSAI scanner

Company    Brand

M/s Ruchi International    Koka Instant Noodles
M/s C G Foods India Pvt Ltd    Wai Wai noodles
M/s Glaxosmithkline
    Consumer Healthcare    Foodles (10 variants)
M/s Nestle India    Maggi Pazzta (four variants)
A A Nutrition    Yummy noodles (two variants)
M/s Indo-Nissin Food Limited    Top Ramen
n ITC Limited    Instant Noodles (three variants)
n Nestle India    Maggi Noodles (nine variants)

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