Is the Government being a bully or is it just protecting consumer interests? Opinions seem to be divided on the ongoing tussle between Government agencies and Nestle India.

Critics question the timing of the Ministry for Consumer Affairs decision to move National Consumers Dispute Redressal Commission (NCDRC) alleging that Nestle has indulged in unfair trade practices – misbranding and misleading consumers. This, even as the company had got conditional relief from the Bombay High Court last week.

“It’s not fair to say that it is a second attack since our petition is completely different from the one in Bombay High Court in which the company has questioned the recall order issued by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India,” a senior official in Consumer Affairs Ministry said. On August 11, the Consumer Affairs Ministry filed a class action suit seeking damages of about ₹640 crore “on grounds of unfair trade practices, sale of defective goods and sale of Maggi Oats Noodles to the public without product approval.”

“We took this decision after reports on Maggi emerged in early June. Based on the reports the Food Minister Ram Vilas Paswan wrote to NCDRC to take cognizance of the issue,” the official said.

The dispute here is that the company marketed the noodles as a healthy product, sold Maggi Oats Noodles without approvals, and claimed that its products has “no added MSG (monosodium glutamate)”, is a case of misbranding and misleading advertising, the official explained.

Permissible limits

At the hearing on Monday, while admitting the petition, NCDRC has also agreed to the Ministry’s demand of a re-test. The next hearing is on September 30.

Meanwhile, Nestle India believes that this petition is an “unprecedented step” by the Centre and continued to maintain that 2,700 samples tested by accredited labs, including the Government-accredited Central Food Technological Research Institute, Mysuru, found lead within permissible limits.

It also stated that the “No Added MSG” label was not an attempt to mislead consumers. While the company and the Government authorities battle it out, food safety law expert Kunal Kishore said that there are about 25 per cent of the food business operators who do not yet have licensing and registration in place and a large majority of food processing companies violate labelling and packaging food safety regulations sometimes due to lack of knowledge.

Clarity on regulations

“The food safety regulator needs to publicise the food safety regulations. It also needs to give time to the industry to cope with the changing food safety regulations. It is important that they interact with the industry through guidance notes,” he said.

He added that in a bid to make India’s exports competitive, food safety regulations need an overhaul and in tune with global norms.

“At the same time, multi-national companies need to ensure that they follow the law of the land especially in terms of labelling and packaging. They cannot just follow norms that they follow in international countries,” he added.

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