Maggi ban: It’s more than just a two-minute tangle

  • Chanakya
  • Updated: Aug 23, 2015 00:59 IST

If you are to go by the dictum you are what you eat, chances are your menu will be rather limited. Because from time to time, thanks to food safety inspectors, one food item or the other is deemed unfit for consumption. How do they arrive at such conclusions? More by hits and misses, if the Maggi controversy is anything to go by.

See if you can digest this. Andhra Pradesh has 13 districts, each of which needs a dozen food safety officers. There is one in each. Uttar Pradesh has five laboratories for testing food items that get up to 150 samples every day for testing. That would need at least 650 people.

They make do with 55.

We consume a large amount of pesticides and insecticides every day. According to the government, no less than 7,500 people died last year because they had eaten contaminated food. Many basic foodstuff contains adulterants: Turmeric contains metanil yellow, pepper contains small stones, milk contains detergents, chicken contains growth hormones.

On July 16, 2013, at least 23 students died and dozens fell ill at a primary school in Bihar after eating a midday meal. According to the World Health Organization, about 10% of infant deaths in India in 2013 were due to diarrhoea, a disease caused by bad food and water.

The US is known to reject Indian snacks because it finds pesticides and salmonella in them, and because they are seen to be stored in unhygienic conditions.

This newspaper reported last week on the Vaitarna river that supplies water to 1.7 million homes in Mumbai’s western suburbs.

This water contains domestic waste, bio-med-ical and industrial waste, animal carcasses, toxic liquid and huge amounts of garbage. In its 150-km journey before reaching Mumbai, this water gets treated just once — at a 30-year-old treatment plant in Bhandup, which is not entirely equipped for the task.

Who is to be held accountable? Perhaps too many people. And so no one. Things are different when there is a corporate entity to target, better if it is a multinational. That makes news, in fact headlines.

In 2013, according to a Reuters report, a Gorakhpur laboratory said it found monosodium glutamate in Maggi. The local retailer who sold the instant noodle paid a fine of Rs 25,000.

Nothing more was heard of the case after that. Last year, a day before Holi, food inspectors picked up packets of Maggi in Barabanki, a small town in Uttar Pradesh, and sent them for testing to the same Gorakhpur laboratory. It said the samples did not live up to the claim on the label: No added MSG.

Nestle challenged the finding, saying whatever the laboratory had found was because of a natural process. It may sound perverse, but Nestle would have been better off following the example of the local retailer who had settled the issue for Rs 25,000.

That would have been a fraction of the damage it has suffered to its finances and reputation by appealing.

The fire that started in Barabanki was stoked by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), which banned the popular noodle and asked the Swiss multinational to withdraw it from the market.

Nestle recalled all the Maggi stock from the market and destroyed it. Some 27,420 tonnes of Maggi worth Rs 210 crore were burnt in furnaces of cement factories.

Material stock worth another Rs 110 crore with Nestle had to be discarded. Cement plants had to be paid to do the burning. Much time and money was spent on the logistics of recalling the packs from 3.5 million outlets.

Reports say 10,000 vehicles and 38 warehouses were involved.

Two laboratories approved by the FSSAI, one in Goa and another in Mysore, cleared Maggi. But their reports were trashed by the regulator for what it saw as lapses in testing.

One by one, the food approving authorities of seven countries also declared Maggi safe to eat. The last one was the biggest of them all, the US Food and Drug Administration (USFDA), known to have the most stringent standards.

The USFDA’s clean chit came sandwiched between two big, contrasting events.

Just the day before, the government sought Rs 640 crore from Nestle in a class action suit before the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (NCDRC).

A few days later, the Bombay High Court quashed the ban, saying principles of natural justice were not followed by the FSSAI and Maharashtra’s Food and Drugs department before banning Maggi. It allowed Nestle to go in for fresh testing.

Undaunted, the FSSAI chairman said in a newspaper interview that the ban was correct. Consumer affairs minister Ram Vilas Paswan said his ministry was not going to withdraw the suit before the NCDRC.

You would think the government and its regulators were concerned about what you eat, that they go the extra mile to make sure it was safe. If only that were the case.

In the middle of July, food processing minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal said the FSSAI’s “inspector raj” had scared off investors.

Why did Nestle destroy the Maggi stock if there was nothing wrong with it? “If their product was safe why did they destroy it? We ordered only recall of the product and offered that if the product was safe for consumption they should export it. However they destroyed it,” said FSSAI CEO Yudhvir Singh Malik to The Indian Express.

Fair question, but does it establish a proof of guilt?

A line of management thinking says you don’t build companies, you build brands. Building a brand, and retaining its sheen, is all about managing perceptions. Nestle perhaps wanted to send the message to its consumers that it was not in favour of retaining something that had a taint on it. This was anyway packs recalled from shop shelves.

Why keep it? They would have gone through all kinds of transport and stocking. There would also be the possibility of stock past its sell-by date getting into the market.

The FSSAI, too, has a question to answer, raised by the Supreme Court, which last week refused to approve the regulator’s advisory to enforce food safety norms on imported food items.

According to this advisory, the FSSAI required manufacturers to take approval for a broad spectrum of food products including novel foods, functional foods, food supplements, irradiated foods, genetically modified foods, foods for special dietary uses, extracts, concentrates of botanicals... phew!

“Where is the authority for you to do this?” the court asked. As much as authority, someone should give them the wherewithal.

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