At a time when the Bombay high court ruled that the popular Maggi noodles, which stands banned in India for suspected high lead content, be re-tested before it can go on sale again, Nestlé India managing director Suresh Narayanan, who took over on August 1, tells HT about challenges ahead. Excerpts:
How will you describe the last one month?
It has been exciting and extremely challenging. But it has also been very humbling for me.
Do you suspect your competitors of foul play?
It is not for me to speculate on these issues. Honestly, such kind of speculation doesn’t help. The commitment to India remains strong and continues to be strong.
Do you think that in some manner a bit of the inspector raj is creeping back?
Nestlé is all for transparent standards. The issue we took up in Bombay High Court was not on standards. A difficult testing process needs a certain kind of infra­structure. The National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calib­ration Laboratories (NABL) has certified only a few laboratories to do this test. You haven’t done the testing in these labs to establish what lead content is there in Maggi.
And then you come up with some numbers, which have also got a wide range. We have done 2,700 tests on the brand Maggi after the controversy. About 1,100 of these have been done in overseas laboratories and accredited NABL laboratories.
We as a company are disappointed. We have been pronounced guilty without the due process having been completed. All I am saying is, treat me fairly.
Assuming fresh test results and the courts are in your favour, will you sue the government?
At this stage, such thoughts haven’t entered my mind. The first thought is to get Maggi back. We want to work with the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India as a professional body, and all stakeholders in a transparent manner to take business forward.
How would you respond to the view about a witch-hunt?
This company has never told me to do anything even remotely unethical. And the company stand is very clear. May be there was speculation in the outside world. Nobody has approached us. Even assuming that, hypothetically, it had happened, our ethical standards are very clear. It is non-negotiable.
There has been absolutely no attempt by anyone (from the government) to capitalise on this issue in any way that is inappropriate.
For the first time in 17 years, you have posted quarterly losses. How do you plan to turn things around?
I don’t have a magic wand. I am realist to the core. I know it is a long, tough journey up to build back this brand. Clearly, there are other parts of the portfolio that need to be rebuilt, because Maggi is 30% of our business... still a significant proportion... we have to build that back as well.
Over the next couple of years, I would really like to reduce it to about around 25% and raise the rest of the portfolio. And then hopefully accelerate to a more evolved balance as we move forward.
When can we expect Maggi to be back?
The whole process of testing will now start. My hope is that by the end of the year I can bring back the beloved Maggi brand to consumers.
But once you bring back the brand, how do you restore the brand’s shattered trust?
There are three angles to bringing back Maggi. One is that we have to reactivate the whole supply chain, value chain and logistics for this product. Five factories have been closed down, there are suppliers who are not supplying and there are distributers who are not distributing. There are distribution centres that have been very badly affected.
Second is in terms of the whole relaunch package, which has been worked on feverishly by our team. And the third piece is on communication and activation to build back trust in the brand.
What about other products?
There has been an impact because these products are going through a similar outlet channel, the grocery segment. But I am hoping that once we are able to build back Maggi, things will improve.