The soup that Nestle’s Maggi finds itself in, following reports of unsafe levels of lead in its noodles, is not without a precedent.

Remember the furore over pesticide residue in bottled water and the Colas in 2003? Even the authorities were caught off-guard when it came to rules on pesticide residue in these products. The Government finally put a lid on the controversy by formalising norms for permissible levels of pesticide residue.

In the case of Maggi noodles, food authorities across several States are in the process of picking up samples or awaiting safety reports from their labs. Gujarat and Maharashtra authorities, for instance, expect to have results in by the weekend.

But as the spotlight swivels onto food safety and its enforcement again, there also emerges the uncomfortable question of who indeed keeps a watch on whether products keep the promises they make.

Maggi, for instance, promises “Taste bhi, health bhi”. And the marketplace thrives with cooking oils that are good for your heart, beverages that help your child grow or become more active, foods that reduce cholesterol and yoghurt spiked with good bacteria. It does not end there, as there are tooth brushes, pastes and hand-washes endorsed by “doctors” etc.

The unpalatable truth is that health becomes a useful leverage for food and other products, even fast foods! And when a known and trustworthy face tells you that it’s good for your child, heart, teeth and so on — the healthy idea is as good as sold to the consumer.

Some doctors are alarmed at the popularity of skin-lightening creams that they claim have carcinogenic ingredients or the promotion of deodorants that could affect young people by harming their sweat glands.

FSSAI’s role The responsibility then whittles down to the regulator to assure the customer that what he/she sees is what he/she gets.

But if States come out with not-so-healthy findings on Maggi, the regulatory FSSAI (Food Safety and Standards Authority of India) will have some explaining to do, especially since Maggi noodles has been on several breakfast tables across the country, and for several years now.

A food regulatory expert, points out, that if lead was beyond permissible limits, the contamination could come from third party manufacturing or inadequate quality assurance when the raw material was sourced. But lead, like other heavy metals arsenic, mercury and cadmium are “accumulaters”, as it tends to stay in the body. And over a long period of constant consumption, it can cause toxicity, he explains. For example, water and some vegetables and fruits can also contain these metals, he adds.

Nestle, on its part, has maintained that they have tested samples representing over 12 crore packets at independent labs and found in it lead within the permissible limits specified by the authorities.

Familiar with the operations of the FSSAI, the expert points out, that the regulator is in transition as old food laws are being merged. Product approvals are being reviewed and some with exaggerated claims have been recalled, he says.

The FSSAI needs to undertake the process of lifting samples from the market and testing them more regularly, he points out.

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