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Why India struggles to keep its food safe

Why India struggles to keep its food safe

The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India denounced as 'false and malicious' news reports that linked the spice scandal to a recent 10-fold relaxation on maximum permissible limits of pesticide residue.

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Last Updated : 13 May 2024, 04:29 IST
Last Updated : 13 May 2024, 04:29 IST
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By Andy Mukherjee

Sugar in baby cereal. Pesticide in spices. Why can’t India keep its food safe?

Poor regulation and sketchy monitoring are the usual suspects in any developing country. Together with corporate greed, those are also the prime culprits here. But for some years, nationalist pride — and its obverse, anxiety about international humiliation — have also entered the picture, raising the risks for 1.4 billion (140 crore) citizens and a large overseas diaspora.

Nestle SA, which has only recently turned the page on a nine-year-old Indian scandal involving Maggi noodles, is facing a fresh controversy: A Swiss investigative group has said that some of the baby-food products sold by the consumer giant in Asia and Africa come with high levels of added sugar. India was among the countries where samples of Cerelac baby cereal contained the addictive sweetener, the report said.

Separately, some Indian spices, popular with local consumers and also available outside the country, were banned by the regulators in Singapore and Hong Kong. They were found to be laced with unsafe levels of ethylene oxide, a known carcinogen that carries over to food from fumigating agents. The masala variants are now under the US Food and Drug Administration’s scanner, Reuters reported April 27. Both MDH and Everest, the affected brands, have said that they are completely safe.

What’s surprising in all of this is the response of Indian officials. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India denounced as “false and malicious” news reports that linked the spice scandal to a recent 10-fold relaxation on maximum permissible limits of pesticide residue. The country has the most stringent norms, the regulator said, even though others clearly seem to think otherwise.

Lax supervision is also an issue. The police discovered fake spices “made with rotten leaves and rice, spoiled millets, wood dust, chili heads, acids and substandard oils” when they recently raided two factories in Delhi, according to a report in the Times of India.

Concerns around food safety have company in generic drugs, where India is the world’s largest supplier. Cough syrup containing diethylene glycol has killed children in developing-world export markets like Gambia and Uzbekistan. At home, mass poisoning of children with medication contaminated with DEG has occurred on several occasions. And yet, any criticism, as Dinesh Thakur, a whistleblower of unsafe medicine, told my colleague Ruth Pollard, is seen through the lens of nationalism.

It’s a very cloudy lens. Obvious harm becomes invisible and nonexistent threats appear real. Take the 2015 Maggi crisis. India banned the sales of the country’s biggest noodle brand, and forced the company to burn 35,000 tons of stock. Nestle India Ltd.’s annual profit cratered by more than half. And this entire kerfuffle was based on what? The food-safety agency had picked up a dozen Maggi packets from a store in Uttar Pradesh in India’s lawless, corruption-ridden north, found lead well over permissible limits and decided that it had enough evidence to pull the plug.

Nestle argued that it had tested more than 1,000 batches and found them to be safe. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s hyper-nationalist government had just entered its second year, and Baba Ramdev, a bearded yoga guru in orange robes who was close to the new regime, was promoting his herbal soap-to-rose-sherbet offerings as better alternatives to established products from Western multinationals like Unilever Plc and Nestle. In November 2015, as Maggi was just about returning to shop shelves after a court set aside the ban, Ramdev’s Patanjali launched a wheat noodle, calling it a healthier option, even though it didn’t have the right approvals from the food regulator.

That the Maggi lead-poisoning scare was baseless became clear months earlier, when a lot of the recalled stock appeared at my neighborhood Indian grocery store in Singapore. The city-state had found it to be safe, and allowed imports to resume. (I remember feasting on Indian-made noodles.)

Sugar in baby food is a different challenge, one that has its roots in activist shareholders’ demands of a vote on the health impact of Nestle products worldwide. The company has denied applying any “double standard” in how it views babies in richer versus poorer nations, and said it is phasing out added sugars worldwide in “growing-up milks.” Still, with the Indian regulator promising to investigate all infant-food products, Nestle can’t rule out an escalation of conflict in a large market that has given it a black eye once before.

And it may, again. Situations where companies are perceived to be doing damage to one or more of their stakeholders will “come in the life of every brand at least once,” as Shailendra Pratap Jain, a professor of marketing at the University of Washington, Seattle, explained to me. The important thing, he said, is for brand caretakers to acknowledge the customers’ anger and pain and respond swiftly.

“In Maggi, there was no excessive lead, and yet because Nestle India was purportedly late to accept accountability, four country heads and the global CEO had to get involved before the allegation could be put to rest,” said Jain, who has used the incident as a case study, alongside more recent ones such as Boeing Co.’s 737 Max mess, in an upcoming book, Managing Brand Transgressions, co-authored with Shalini Sarin Jain, a management professor at University of Washington, Tacoma. “In the Tylenol crisis of 1982, an unknown troublemaker had injected cyanide in some pills, and seven people had died. Yet Johnson & Johnson saved the brand by taking accountability, swiftly recalling the product and engaging in frequent and open communication with consumers, regulators, employees and the media,” he said.

The good news is that at least the courts are cracking the whip on nationalist mumbo-jumbo. Patanjali, the Ayurveda firm, had to issue a public apology recently after India’s Supreme Court took Ramdev to task for pitching his herbal remedies as “permanent solutions” to ailments such as diabetes, obesity and asthma. In 2020, the Yoga guru had shocked the medical community by marketing his “Coronil” as a cure for Covid-19.

A rap on the knuckle may stop some egregious behavior. To ensure that only quality food and drugs are sold to Indians — and by Indians to the world — strong regulations, backed by a well-funded, nationwide monitoring system, are urgently needed.

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