After India ordered instant noodles sold by Swiss food giant, Nestle off the shelves over safety concerns, authorities are widening tests on other brands of noodles, pastas and macaroni. The controversy has turned the spotlight on safety of packaged foods.
The report that Nestle’s Maggi noodles contained high amounts of lead and taste enhancer monosodium glutamate first trickled in from a remote town in one of India’s poorest states — Uttar Pradesh.
Within days, the country’s food regulator declared Maggi noodles “unsafe and hazardous for human consumption” and ordered one of the biggest food recalls in India. At least six states and the Indian army banned the popular two-minute noodles, which were Nestle’s fastest selling food item in the country.
Nestle has contested the results, declaring the product safe.
But India’s food regulator has stuck by its reports and says it is now testing a range of noodles, pastas and macaroni made by seven other companies for safety.
Head of Equinox Labs in Mumbai, Ashwin Bhadri, calls this a long overdue step. He helps companies comply with food safety regulations.
“This is something that should be happening more regularly, especially for the bigger products which are circulated in the millions. There should be a check mechanism for that and everything cannot be left only to the brands. I am pretty sure the brands are doing their best, but the government does need to step in and should conduct more such checks,” said Bhadri.
Several countries like Canada and Britain have also ordered tests on Maggi noodles imported from India.
At home, the controversy has led to mixed reactions. Over the last three decades, the bright yellow, 20 cent pack became one of the country’s iconic snacks, sold at “Maggi shacks” in the remotest corners, and devoured by children and students living in hostels.
And some Maggi fans are still willing to put their faith in the noodles.
On a visit to the hill resort of Lansdowne in the eastern Himalayas last weekend, Shweta Andrews along with a group of friends relished a plate of Maggi despite the fact that it had grabbed headlines for the wrong reasons.
“I don’t think there is any problem in having Maggi. You have grown up having Maggi, it does not matter really, you can still have it. In fact I was craving [for] it today,” said Andrews.
Experts say in a country where stories of food adulteration abound and hygiene levels are poor, middle class consumers have long had a high level of trust in packaged foods from big companies.
But Amit Khurana who heads the food safety team at the Center of Science and Environment in New Delhi, hopes the recent food scare will serve as a “wake-up call” and lead to greater scrutiny of packaged foods, both by consumers and regulators. He points out that packaging norms need to be strengthened and consumers need to understand how to read food labels.
“Perhaps there needs to be much more stringent standards of monitoring. So If I have to pick up one thing out of this -- yes, maybe packaged food is not as safe as it appears to be. We still do not mandatorily require [labeling of] something like salt, which is very important to be told how much is there in the packet. We are far from something like nutrition pack labeling. So a lot of work needs to be done on the regulation front,” said Khurana.
India’s food regulator is just seven years old and much of its focus has been on tracking food adulteration. Experts say implementation and enforcement, as with many other Indian laws, is poor.
However, the recent controversy could prompt companies – both big and small -- to become better prepared for more aware consumers and a more aggressive regulator. Ashwin Bhadri of Equinox points out that the Indian market is growing by leaps and bounds.
“It is one of the fastest growing markets for packaged foods because as the variety grows, the spending power is growing as well, lesser and lesser people are cooking things fresh and eating them, so packaged food is the category that is going to grow, and I don’t see any stoppage of that in the next few years,” said Bhadri.
This is not the first time that a high-profile, global brand has been in the line of fire in India. In 2006, sales of Coca Cola and Pepsi plummeted in the country after an advocacy group claimed that their soft drinks contained pesticide traces.
But they bounded back after an aggressive campaign denying the reports. In 2003, chocolate company Cadbury launched a massive campaign to win back public trust after allegations that worms were found in some chocolate bars.
Nestle has also said it is working with Indian authorities to “clear up the confusion,” and its chief executive, Paul Bulcke, visited New Delhi on Friday vowing to win back the trust of consumers. But it still remains to be seen what the Swiss food giant will do to put Maggi noodles back on Indian plates.