Adding insult to injury: Nestle CEO's defence of Maggi is weak on sincerity and facts

Indra Nooyi was very clear on what she would have done during the 2003 pesticide scandal that hit Pepsi in India. "One thing I should have done was to appear in India three years ago and say: 'Cut it out. These products are the safest in the world, bar none, and your tests are wrong,'" she told Business Week.

Nestle global CEO Paul Bulcke did a milder version of the same on Friday. He came to India, held a press conference to assure us that the consumer health was the company's paramount concern and that they would keep Maggi noodles off shelves until they fully resolved the allegations of lead and mono-sodium glutamate.

Bulcke didn't criticise the government tests, but claimed that the company's tests showed lead levels well below what was permitted in a food product of any kind. But what about the mono-sodium glutamate (MSG)? The one ingredient that Maggi outright disclaimed in big letters on its 'No added MSG' label?

Bulcke claimed MSG traces are detected due to the presence of other ingredients in the product but underlined the fact that the company did not independently add MSG during the course of production. So it wasn't really 'added MSG' as much as "created MSG", as in it was created by all the other ingredients inside a packet of Maggi.

So while there's no one pouring MSG into each pack of Maggi as it goes down a conveyor belt, Nestle isn't exactly doing due diligence to ensure that there is no MSG in your plate of Maggi. So to put it simply: you've been eating MSG, Nestle's possibly known about the MSG, but chose to slap on a "No added MSG" label, anyway.

Bulcke at the press conference today. PTI

Bulcke at the press conference today. PTI

Here's the thing: despite what you may have heard, MSG isn't known to be bad for you. At least if you're going to believe the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The US Food and Drug Administration in its FAQs on MSG is very clear that there's no real problem with its presence in your diet. The only time it was found to have side effects was when the ingredient was consumed by itself, as in not as part of another food product. So unless you eat MSG by the fistful, you're not at any immediate risk of any of these side-effects.

But here's the clincher. The FDA goes on to say:

"However, foods with any ingredient that naturally contains MSG cannot claim “No MSG” or “No added MSG” on their packaging. MSG also cannot be listed as “spices and flavoring."

Now, Maggi told the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India that the reason they'd put a 'No MSG' on their label was because everyone in the industry was doing it. So because every instant noodle maker was doing it in India, a global company that undoubtedly follows the US FDA regulations decided to blithely ignore that little proviso in the Indian market.

So Nestle's CEO is right, they didn't violate the law as such, but now were they ethical? A global company ought to have global standards, not one for India and another for the United States.

The Nestle CEO also spoke of how the company withdrew the instant noodles solely because it wanted to retain the trust of the legion of fans its noodles have in India.

"We felt unfounded reasons resulted in confusion and the trust of consumers was shaken," Bulcke said.

Unfortunately the reasons aren't as 'unfounded' as they're being made to seem. At least two states, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi, have confirmed that the levels of MSG and more importantly, lead, were well above permissible limits. The FSSAI order is particularly damning.

Nestle told the FSSAI that the sample sent to Kolkata might have been found to contain lead because it was kept open for too long. Presumably, the 'omnipresent' lead -- that Bulcke cited in his statement -- in atmosphere and soil ended up in the test sample. However, the argument was rejected by the regulator which also pointed that the packet, in fact, had not been left open.

FSSAI said that it didn't matter how these elements got into the product, what mattered is that they were there. The 'tastemaker' and noodles should not contain lead unless it is within the permissible limit.

Now Nestle's own tests may not have found any lead in their samples, but they should to explain as to how the samples that were sent to the Indian laboratories revealed otherwise.

More damning is the 'healthy' oats noodles that Madhuri Dixit cheerily endorsed, and which now faces a legal notice. The FSSAI says that the company didn't have the permission from the FSSAI to start selling the product just yet since it hadn't undergone the required risk assessment test. The FSSAI in its notice said:

"What is disturbing to note is that the Company had already released the said product in the market without completing the process of risk assessment and has been promoting its sales."

Truth be told, contrary to what Bulcke may claim, Nestle withdrew its product just before it would have been forced to do so. The FSSAI notice banning all sales of the noodles in its order was released even as his press conference was ending.

It is unlikely that anyone ever believed Maggi was a healthy food. And there are many other products that deserve just as much scrutiny and if necessary, even a ban. But none of it changes Nestle's betrayal of its most loyal customers. To now claim that consumer trust is the company's prime concern, just adds masala to the gaping MSG-inflicted wound.

Updated Date: Jun 06, 2015 13:11 PM

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