The two-week long drama (and, if you include some TV news channels, melodrama) over Nestle’s Maggi noodles, in some batches of which several government-run food-testing labs say they’ve found high levels of lead and other additives, came to a climax on Friday, when the central food safety regulator ordered the company to recall all variants of the snack from the Indian market.
Nestle claims its own tests, including some done by an independent lab, show the noodles to be safe and compliant with Indian standards and has gone to court. But for now the Maggi episode has dealt a massive blow to the company, its brands and its equity in the Indian market. Yet there could be another fallout of this: A valuable lesson for the Indian consumer.
India’s market for processed, packaged and branded foods is a nascent one where consumers are largely unaware of the ingredients, additives and other attributes of what they buy and eat. Brand imagery, particularly of those products that are backed by hefty marketing spends, dominates and determines what is bought by consumers, who rarely bother to find out too much about what really goes into making what they are buying.
When was the last time you read closely the list of ingredients on the package of food — cookies, jam, sauce or anything — that you bought before you ate it? Lead certainly isn’t a listed ingredient in Maggi noodles and whatever levels of that metal have found itself into the product is by way of some other ingredient — presumably water — but in the past 20 years that Maggi has become an ubiquitous snack in India, how many Maggi consumers do you think have read the list of ingredients on the packets of those instant noodles? Have you?
As Nestle and the Indian authorities lock horns in court and Maggi noodles remain off the shelves, a positive impact of this episode could be the emergence of a more aware Indian consumer. And it is time that happened. In more developed markets, consumer activism, particularly when it comes to food, is a vibrant movement that often forces global food brands into making changes in what they put into the products they sell.
Recently, US food giant Kraft announced that from next year, it would stop using artificial preservatives and colours in its popular packaged macaroni and cheese that give it a neon orange shade; Chipotle, a US food chain, has decided to make food using ingredients that are not genetically modified; the sandwich chain Subway has said that in its North American market it would stop using artificial flavours, colours and preservatives in its meats and toppings (an aside: do consumers know that it now does?); and Taco Bell and Pizza Hut (both part of another US food major, Yum Brands) have also announced plans to remove artificial ingredients and colours from their products.
Many of these food giants have responded to trends in consumer preferences in developed markets towards more natural ingredients while others have yielded to consumer activism — the Kraft decision, for example, follows a change.org petition signed by more than 360,000 people in America; and when in March this year, Dunkin’ Donuts said it was removing titanium dioxide, a whitening agent used in its powdered doughnuts, it did so even without any evidence that the nanomaterial is harmful for humans.
In contrast, the Indian packaged food market — its consumers, regulators and even the government agencies concerned — is in a much less evolved phase. Ingredient labels on packaged food hardly come under scrutiny (except perhaps for brown dots, which denote non-vegetarian food, and green dots for vegetarian). The ongoing Nestle episode may be fraught with controversies: sparked by a zealous district food inspector, the Maggi noodles issue quickly turned into a high-decibel media frenzy; the initial reaction of the company was inexplicably fuzzy; and the decision to order the company to recall the brand on the basis of disparate lab results could seem hasty. Still, if it does become a wake-up call to the Indian consumer to watch what she eats, then it will have done some good.
(The author is the editor-in-chief of Hindustan Times. He tweets as @sanjoynarayan )