When Julius Michael Johannes Maggi launched a line of food products in Switzerland in the 1860s, he probably had no idea that a brand of noodles named after him would be at the centre of a raging controversy in India 150 years later.
Maggi, the youngest of five children of an Italian immigrant, was born at Frauenfeld in Switzerland in 1846 and took over his father’s hammer mill in 1869.
The milling industry was in crisis at the time and Maggi decided to look at new avenues of business. He joined hands with physician Fridolin Schuler, who had a concept for improving the nutritional content of meals for the working classes by making packaged foods from milled pulses or legumes.
After two years of experimentation, the two men introduced the first industrially produced flour from legumes to the Swiss market in 1884. When the product failed to take off, Maggi went back to the drawing board and created ready-to-use soups and launched a range of food flavours in 1886, according to a profile on the Nestle website.
The Swiss government backed Maggi’s efforts to create products that were quick to prepare yet nutritious with an eye on the growing number of women who were beginning to take up careers. This resulted in Maggi’s success with instant pea and bean soups.
Food products giant Nestlé acquired the Maggi brand in 1947, and Maggi’s successful formula – producing easy to prepare foods for working women – was also behind the two-minute noodles that were introduced in India in 1983. Maggi went on to garner a 90% share of the market for instant noodles though the figure has fallen in recent years after the entry of more brands.
Before his death at the age of 66 in 1912, Maggi had opened subsidiaries in Paris, Berlin, Singen, Vienna, Bregenz and London and a representative office in the US.
But the current row over Maggi noodles in India is not the first time the brand has been embroiled in a controversy.
In October 2008, Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) banned an advertisement for Maggi noodles that claimed to strengthen muscles and bones.
The ASA acted after the advertisement, meant to air in Bangladesh, was mistakenly beamed by a channel in Britain. It said the advertisement was misleading and broke the country’s strict industry code.
In 2006, Muslim clerics in Indore claimed Maggi noodles and Cadbury’s chocolates were laced with pig fat and gelatin. They alleged multi–national corporations had devised an “E-code”, or list of ingredients, in a bid to camouflage the presence of haraam (forbidden) substances in foods.
Maggi and other MNCs denied the claims made by the clerics.