VK Pandey, the official in Uttar Pradesh responsible for the tests that detected “dangerously high” levels of lead in Maggi noodles, had previously taken on food products giant Britannia for the “wrong” labelling of its non-vegetarian cake.
The 40-year-old Barabanki-based officer of the Uttar Pradesh Food Safety and Drug Administration (FSDA) is the man who has been keeping a watchful eye on food products ranging from cakes to biryani.
He collected the samples of Maggi, Nestle India’s popular two-minute noodle, that were found to contain “dangerously high” levels of lead and monosodium glutamate (MSG), a taste enhancer. The discovery prompted similar action by authorities in Uttarakhand, West Bengal and Maharashtra.
In the case of Britannia, Pandey says he acted after finding that markings for its products did not conform to the rules.
“Previously the company used to print a warning about the cake being non-vegetarian in red color, instead of brown as is prescribed in the FSDA rule book. It was only after I filed the case in the ADM court of Barabanki that the company agreed to print the warning of non-vegetarian products in brown colour,” he says.
Even as his decision to test Maggi noodles raked up concerns about the safety of the noodles, Pandey says he detected problems in samples of Lucknow’s famous Wahid’s Biryani, which sells like hot cakes.
“These samples were also picked up from Barabanki when the famous biryani brand had set up a stall there. Our tests revealed that there was an issue with colour used in the biryani,” he says.
A case was filed against Wahid’s Biryani in Barabanki.
Pandey's actions also prompted a lawyer in Barabanki to file a complaint against actors Madhuri Dixit, Amitabh Bachchan and Preity Zinta for popularising a “harmful” product.
So what happens to Maggi now? What if fresh samples of Maggi don’t test positive for high lead content?
“See, on the basis of tests conducted in Gorakhpur and Kolkata laboratories, we have already filed a complaint case against Nestle’s Nagal Kalan Industrial Unit in Haroli, Una, Himachal Pradesh, Delhi-based Nestle India Limited and the company’s FMCG managers Mohan Gupta and Shabab Alam,” Pandey says.
“A complete report has been sent to the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India. It would now decide whether a total recall of the product is required or not.”
Pandey recalls that his team first collected samples of Maggi from a store in Barabanki on March 10, 2014. “Initially we sent it for testing for monosodium glutamate because the company claims on its packet that the product doesn’t contain any MSG,” he says.
"After the test by our lab in Gorkahpur, the amount of MSG was found more than the prescribed level. The FSDA, Barbanki, sent a notice to the company asking its officers to appear before a designated officer under section 46(4) of the FSDA Act. But Nestle initially tried to challenge the authority of the designated officer to start prosecution against them.
“They came and argued with us to cancel the proceedings but I directed them to come in appeal and face the case,” he says.
Pandey adds: “After that I sent a notice to them. At this Nestle officials said they wanted the product to be sent to a referral lab for checking. They also paid the requisite fee of Rs 1,000 for getting the product tested in the Kolkata laboratory, which incidentally is one of the best labs in India along with labs of Pune, Ghaziabad and Mysore.”
The findings were surprising – the Kolkata laboratory not only confirmed the high MSG findings but also detected dangerously high lead content in the Maggi samples.
Against the permissible lead content of 0.01 parts per million, the Maggi samples were found to contain 17 parts per million, he says.
“That was enough for us to begin proceedings against Nestle India’s product,” he says. FSDA Commissioner PK Singh gave the go-ahead for the prosecution.
Did Pandey feel any pressure from any quarter? “Even if you act against a small trader there are pressures but we have learnt to handle such pressures,” he says.
Read: Maggi noodles row: UP food administration to sue Nestle