The country’s packaged food industry is hobbling from a domino effect after the Maggi mess blew the lid off flaws in safety checks, inadequate information on labels and the lack of a uniform national protocol for laboratory tests of products.
The raging row over Nestle’s popular instant noodle reconfirmed shortcomings in the country’s food safety network as data from the central Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) shows about 13% of the 2.4 lakh various product samples had failed lab tests since 2011.
This makes India the number one country in terms of unsafe food, followed by China where 9.9% of the tested samples failed to meet prescribed standards. The enormity of the problem can be gauged from the global average of failed tests that ranges from 5 to 6%, according to quality monitoring organisation Food Sentry.
The state-wise breakup is even more alarming with Madhya Pradesh (40%) and Uttar Pradesh (36%) leading the count in 2013-14. It’s not surprising then that the Maggi crisis began in Uttar Pradesh, where inspectors are regularly on the lookout for adulterated foods.
The FSSAI data also shows misrepresentation on labels of food packets. Consumers remain in the dark about ingredients and nutrition facts of a product because of inappropriate labeling, says Amit Khurana, food safety and toxin unit head at the Centre for Science and Environment.
“Every ingredient of a food product should be clearly mentioned on the pack with the quantity of each element and in comparison with the recommended daily allowance. Easy to understand and easy to read front-of-pack labeling should be adopted,” he says.
The Maggi tests in Uttar Pradesh detected the flavour enhancer monosodium glutamate, or MSG, even as the easily recognisable yellow packets contained the words “No added MSG”. This synthetic ingredient can damage the nervous system with long-term use.
But the food industry says most of the labeling stick to prescribed government guidelines and corrected whenever inconsistencies were detected.
Also, the industry blames the lack of uniform testing procedures for samples failing tests in one state and passing in another. “It is strange that a Maggi packet is found safe in one state for lead and MSG content, but fails in another,” says a senior executive with the packaged food sector.
This happens because the FSSAI prescribes only broad parameters for tests, not a protocol specifying how they should be conducted. Hence, Maggi passed the Goa tests but flunked in Uttar Pradesh.
Most western countries follow uniform protocols, unlike the FSSAI that foisted the responsibility on individual states. The central regulator doesn’t conduct any tests, saying food is a state subject.
But states are saddled with shabby infrastructure and acute shortage of qualified technicians for such tests. Uttar Pradesh has only five laboratories — or one per 40 million people — and half of these are not certified to carry out tests by the national quality accreditation board. Similarly, assistants are asked to test samples in about 40% of the state’s labs in Rajasthan.
Union health minister JP Nadda says states have been asked to improve facilities, although experts believe a multipronged approach — involving the Centre, the states and the food industry — is required to address the crisis.
Read: 3% of packaged water, ice cream, milk in Maharashtra found to be substandard
Read: ‘Mangoes’ can be as risky as Maggi, say experts in Indore
Parameters for testing noodles, pastas, macaroni
Physical examination for mould, living and dead insects, insect fragments, rodent contamination (hair, excreta) and fungus.
Rancidity and musty odour.
Test for added natural colours [curcumin, riboflavin, chlorophyll, beta-carotene, carotene (natural extract), annatto extract (bixin), beta apo-8 carotenal, methyl ester of beta apo-8 carotenoic acid, canthaxanthin, caramel colours].
Test for synthetic colours (ponceau 4R, carmoisine, erythrosine, tartrazine, sunset yellow FCF, indigo carmine, brilliant blue FCF, fast green FCF).
Test for preservatives (benzoic acid and its salts, sorbic acid ad its salts, sulphur dioxide).
Test for antioxidants (BHA and TBHQ).
Moisture Not more than 12.5%.
Total ash excluding salt Not more than 1.0 % (on dry weight basis).
Ash insoluble in dilute HCl Not more than 0.1 % (on dry weight basis).
Nitrogen: Not less than 1.7 % on dry weight basis.