The great Maggi row: Of two minutes to oblivion and credibility crisis
Today Nestlé faces a crisis of credibility in the Indian market similar to the one it faced in the 70s in the West with its milk formulacolumns Updated: Jun 08, 2015 12:05 IST
Everyone has a Maggi memory. Even those who pooh-pooh it as plateful of ‘maida’ decorated by shrivelled carrots and peas have a sepia-tinted strand of nostalgia that ties them culturally to the brand, if not gastronomically.
For many of us the recollections are evocative of a simpler, more innocent and more youthful side to our lives. As teenage girls who had rebelled against the stereotype of women cooking, a potful of water and the tantalisingly titled ‘tastemaker’ were unelaborate enough to get the clumsiest of us into the kitchen in our pajamas. It was slumber party food when the family’s cousins had rambunctious sleepovers; our ‘desi’ alternative to the buttered scones, hard-boiled eggs and sardines sandwiches that Enid Blyton’s midnight feasts had taught us to dream of.
Years later, huffing and puffing our way up some long and winding mountain trail the food of choice and comfort was still Maggi, sometimes cooked with lashings of cooked egg thrown in as it bubbled on a fire started from twigs and bramble, made fresh at a makeshift dhaba under a thatched roof.
Another decade passed and with global exposure and opportunity, we now had the choice of more sophisticated food options. Yet, when we sought easy contentment, even as adult professionals, we often fell back on the buttery warmth of Maggi. Last winter during the elections in Jammu and Kashmir, driving back from North Kashmir to Srinagar, we couldn’t get food for miles. It was freezing and most people were huddled indoors. We persuaded a tiny shop with sleepy attendants to let us do the cooking. My producer, Ruby, grabbed a giant, steel cauldron, boiled a mountain of water and flung in multiple bags of Maggi. As the team grouped around the faint heat of the fire, the sheer familiarity of that moment felt just like home.
The hysterical panic that parents and children alike have felt in this past week is precisely because Maggi had come to occupy a cult status in the collective cultural memory of Indians of a certain generation. Not because it was especially tasty or healthy — of course we all recognised that instant food was hardly going to come loaded with nutrients or flavour — but because it was simple, inexpensive, convenient, omnipresent and sometimes as old, if not older than the hostel kid gorging on it.
I guess we all knew that Maggi was not particularly ‘good’ for us. But that’s very different from Maggi not being safe to eat.
Even worse is the crumbling consumer trust, which is collapsing even faster after Nestlé’s stubborn and arrogant refusal to engage on specific queries and the utterly elitist arguments made by some of its defenders. My friend Gurcharan Das, for instance, called the giant multi-national a “soft target” and spoke of the much greater dangers of unhygienic street-food. It’s a point that’s been made by several among the well-heeled of India in the past week. I find the argument unpalatable. Are we really going to compare the accountability of struggling hawker to that of a company with a market cap of nearly $250 billion? Even if the lead detected is sourced back to ground water, as some have argued in defence of Nestlé, why is it not their duty to first treat the water?
I concede that an instant, 2-minute judgment is also hazardous for health. Some issues remain frustratingly obtuse. One food analyst wanted to know if the tests for lead and MSG were done on the masala sachet or the finished, cooked product. It’s not clear to us how that might change Maggi’s safety quotient but someone should be able to answer the question lucidly.
If the labelling on Maggi packets is misleading and untruthful (such as claims of No MSG or non-disclosure of the dangerously high salt content) why has no one in the food and safety administration called it out all these years?
From one discussion on television I came away less than convinced at first by the claims made by the food safety officer Sanjay Singh, who first sounded the alarm against Maggi in Uttar Pradesh. He linked the poisonous impact of lead, which he said was well beyond permissible limits in Maggi, to the rising graph of juvenile crime. I thought the claim hyperbolic and an instance of getting carried away with the anger against Maggi till I came back home and did some research and found several scholarly papers in the United States drawing the same linkages.
It’s valid to argue that if Maggi has misled us, so may have many other big brands of processed food. It’s fair to say that even the vegetables in our kitchen have been sourced from the banks of rivers contaminated by toxicity. But the ‘why-just-me’ argument does Nestlé no good. Let’s not forget that you were also singled out for near iconic status and this is a product that accounts for one-fifth of your revenues.
Even the press statement that announced Nestlé’s decision to withdraw Maggi from the market was imperiously vague. It insisted the product was safe without taking head-on any of the questions that consumers would want answered. It’s true that many of the questions need to be asked of the government authorities who handed out product approvals to begin with. But that can hardly be the shield that Nestlé hides behind. In the 70s Nestlé had tried to promote milk formula over breast milk, leading to a massive backlash across the western world. Today it faces the same crisis of credibility in the Indian market. It must convince Indians that it doesn’t have a different set of safety standards for us. Else we may be left with the inevitable conclusion — fast to cook is not good to eat — burying a truck-load of memories in what could become the graveyard for a once-loved brand.
Barkha Dutt is consulting editor, NDTV, and founding member, Ideas Collective. The views expressed are personal