A lot has been written and debated about Maggi (and Nestle) in the recent weeks. There is still little clarity on the nature and veracity of the alleged infractions committed by Nestle, and the remedial measures that the company has to undertake to become fully compliant with FSSAI norms as applicable to the specific product category, and then the action plan of the company to win back their customers’ trust in the brand and in the company.

Hopefully, the clarity will come in the next few days or at most, a couple of weeks. However, what this (and some earlier similar controversies of the past such as the reported pesticide contamination in select brands of carbonated beverages in one instance, and occurrence of worms in some chocolate products in another) incidence has shown is that India needs to update and upgrade its own food standards and safety regulatory capabilities without any further delay.

A recent IndiaSpend report mentions India has only 148 food testing laboratories. For a nation of 1.26 billion people, and millions of independent, largely unorganized retail point-of-sale outlets for food products (including grocers, street vendors, restaurants, dhabas, road-side eateries, and mithai shops etc.), it translates to just about 1 lab for about 8.5 million population and thereby severely jeopardizing the health and wellbeing of millions of unsuspecting Indians.

Causes for concern

At the same time, the demographic, social, economic, and lifestyle trends are such that India will consume more food, and of the total food consumed, more diverse and more processed food in the years to come. It may be right to wish for an era where everything we ate came from natural, sustainable farming methods, and freshly cooked inside the home kitchen. But the reality of our times is such that consumers (cutting across income and lifestyle strata) are increasingly time-impoverished and thus have a valid reason to actively seek convenience foods that can save them from shopping (for ingredients), processing and cooking.

It is also a reality that our palates are becoming more adventurous, again across all socio-economic strata, and no longer do our “mother’s recipes” fully satisfy our cravings for different categories of foods –both from within India and from global cuisines. Ready-to-eat or ready-to-cook products such as dried and packaged noodles and pasta belong to new varieties of international foods that successfully meet both the convenience and the palate test for many Indian consumers.

Remedy sought

The adjoining chart depicts the current size of India’s food market, of which processed and packaged foods segment shows double digit growth, year after year. Once the Maggi issue is resolved, and the company rectifies the deficiency, if any, found in their compliance with FSSAI regulations and guidelines, it is important for the Government to take urgent steps to upgrade and strengthen the FSSAI infrastructure to keep up with the rapid increase in the size of processed and packaged food products.

FSSAI and the processed/packaged food industries must also work closely with each other so that appropriate norms and guidelines are in place, and then are ideally supported by voluntary and proactive compliance by the industry, so that another fiasco reminiscent of Maggi does not recur, and that the consumers’ health is not put to risk at the altar of convenience, taste, or corporate profit.

(The writer is Chairman, Technopak Advisors)