Maggi in a muddle

KS Narayanan | Updated on January 24, 2018 Published on June 12, 2015

Toss it all out? Fault one, fault all KR DEEPAK

The hysteria over ‘contamination’ has created more confusion than clarity about food safety standards

A lot has been said and written on the Maggi issue, most of it based on half-baked information. A lot of sweeping judgments have been made.

What are the facts in the public domain? The food safety authorities in Uttar Pradesh found lead and MSG (monosodium glutamate) in excess of the prescribed limits in a few batches of Maggi noodles about six months past the expiry date. After this, several States conducted random testing of current samples. Their results are not definitive to say the least, as some have given the product a clean chit, while others have banned the product.

In the confusion, Nestlé seems to be going from pillar to post but with no clear and direct communication to the consuming public, except for an update on their website.

Confusion confounded

India needs to embrace structural changes to ensure food safety for future generations. My main concern stems from the Food Safety Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), created under the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006. This has been enacted in accordance with international codex guidelines. There are a lot of provisions in the Act that require revamping, but what we’re seeing is a patchwork implementation of both the old PFA (Prevention of Food Adulteration Act) guidelines as well as the new FSSAI laws.

Over the past year, we have seen a completely ham-handed approach to the import of food products and their labelling, resulting in container loads of food products being sent back, rotting in warehouses and causing many leading companies, such as Lindt, to exit the country. A more transparent, uniform and practical approach is required that not only meets the country’s food safety standards, but also ensures that we continue to attract investments in the food processing sectors.

On the issue of lead and MSG, there is evidently no clarity on what are the permissible limits, and in the case of excess, what is the remedial action to be taken. Is lead or MSG being tested for only in the noodles or in the spice mix, or after having prepared the same based on directions of usage given in the packaging? If the testing was done after preparing the product, was the water used for cooking tested for the presence of lead?

Need for transparency

Coming to Nestlé, the company needs to be more forthcoming in communicating actively and transparently to the public. Since Nestlé sells similar products across the world, it means complying with numerous international food safety standards. It has world class food testing facilities, experts and an unparalleled knowledge base. All these need to be used strategically to reassure consumers.

The reason why no company says ‘No MSG’ and instead says ‘No Added MSG’ on their packaging is because glutamate naturally occurs in many daily use products such as potatoes, tomatoes, mother’s milk and so on. If the company does not use MSG as an ingredient, it is well within its right in accordance with global norms to label the product with ‘No Added MSG’. A disturbing parallel is the large number of products that are labelled as sugar-free, but in fact contain sugar substitutes. Is this something we should be very concerned about?

With reference to the presence of lead and glutamates in the final product, what needs to be clearly ascertained is how they originated. Since the company does not add these in specific doses, they could only have come from the ingredients themselves — the wheat or other grains used, the spices, the water and so on. If the excess lead levels are arising out of water supplied by the municipal corporations, can the consuming public sue the concerned water supply agencies?

In light of this incident, it is crucial to examine the implications this can have on various other products. There are also other similar categories such as instant soups, vermicelli, oats.

And what about roadside eateries that source their noodles and sauces from local manufacturers? The FSSAI should take a key role in getting such eateries registered and ensure compliance and monitoring is done.

Some measures

Considering the Pandora’s box that this incident has opened up, what steps do we need to take to uphold food safety? Banning is a knee-jerk reaction that takes us nowhere. Instead, some practical measures require to be taken.

Constitute a task force of experts from food technology institutes, such as CFTRI, apart from renowned food scientists working with leading companies such as Amul, Unilever, Nestlé, Tatas and others. It is necessary to balance theory with practice. In addition, this has to be done on a category level with the concerned experts rather than an omnibus law.

Create clear, uniform guidelines on how to go about monitoring the industry with a clear timeframe such that such random, arbitrary testing is done away with. This will ensure transparency. Simplify the FSSAI guidelines.

Give a grace period of, say, 6 to 12 months to all manufacturers to conform to the new guidelines and correct the packaging declarations as well.

Prioritise the issues and go about monitoring the same in a systematic, planned and regular manner with clear timeframes on implementation. If we are able to clean up a couple of categories over the next one year we would have moved significantly forward. If going after market leaders like Maggi and Nestlé really helps clean up the system, it would have achieved some greater good. But the way I see it is if Maggi is unsafe, then there are at least a million other things we shouldn’t be eating right now.

I would like to recollect an incident in my earlier years in the ice cream business. ‘Matka kulfi’ was an extremely popular product. When the parent organisation tested the ‘matka' it was found to be high on arsenic and lead, and thus they immediately asked us to withdraw the packaging. However, millions of people continue to consume kulfis, chai and even lassi from the very same matkas produced by many local and artisanal manufacturers.

The writer has spent about 25 years in the food industry and is a member of the NRAI, TiE Food Network

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Published on June 12, 2015
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