Cracking the whip on Maggi: In war over food safety, netas are the biggest culprits

Sometimes our government straps on its armour and goes into battle on our behalf, all guns blazing.

This is such a time. And the great enemy of the people is a packet of 2-minute noodles.

The Maggi wars are heating up all over the country. A map of India in The Telegraph shows the various battlefronts helpfully colour-coded in red (banned for now), orange (partial ban/warning), blue (tests ongoing) and green (cleared). As in banned in Delhi for 15 days, warning issued in Karnataka but cleared in Chandigarh. The Indian Army has asked its personnel not to consume Maggi. And the retail giant Future Group, the biggest buyer of Maggi, is taking off its shelves. The Haryana government has conducted raids. Assam CM Tarun Gogoi is asking health officials to get cracking. The Aam Aadmi Party-led government in Delhi has summoned Nestle India officials to discuss safety practices.

But this is not just about Big Bad Maggi and by getting it off the shelves of our stores (and hauling Madhuri Dixit and Big B to court) we will not all be safer and healthier.

 Cracking the whip on Maggi: In war over food safety, netas are the biggest culprits

Screengrab.

As is becoming increasingly clear, Maggi is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to food safety standards that are lax at best and rotten at worst.

As Ashim Sanyal COO of Consumer Voice tells Firstpost, "Why is it restricted to a single brand? The government should get other products checked and ensure that the companies must follow national standards laid down by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) and Food Safety Standards."

Maggi is just a symptom of a much larger problem. Of course it makes sense to go after the company that is sitting on 70% of the instant noodles market. But that does not mean the other 30% are off the hook.

“The entire packaged foods market could come under scrutiny,” says Harish Bijoor of Harish Bijoor Consults Inc. to the Times of India. “The incident has woken up consumers and they’ll be wary of all dehydrated noodles, branded or unbranded.”

But it’s not just about noodles. Maggi sales might have nosedived but that does not mean its replacements are any safer. Biochemist Thuppil Venkatesh, the national chair of the Indian Society for Lead Awareness and Research, paints a grim picture of what we eat for G.S. Mudur of The Telegraph.

“I think we’ve just seen the tip of an iceberg,” says Venkatesh. According to Venkatesh while we might go into hysteria at the prospect of lead in our Maggi, the fact is there’s documented lead in “a variety of processed and raw food products such as chocolates, milk, vegetables, fish and water.”

Once lead gets into the water it can infiltrate the entire food chain. It’s only recently that some governments are restricting immersion of idols in our rivers because the paint has lead. Most of us have no idea how to dispose of used batteries and the very pipes that we use for plumbing could be leaching lead into our water. And it’s not even what we eat. A 2013 study by doctors in Kolkata showed that at least 20% of the city’s children were affected by lead poisoning via the paint on toys, cheap plastic mugs, cheap crayons cooking utensils, even the paint peeling on the wall. Children are more susceptible because they have smaller bodies.

Now add to this dismal scenario spotty enforcement and testing by the very bodies entrusted with food safety like the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India. Figures published in media of the FSSAI’s track record show that in 20011-12 it tested 64,593 samples, found 8,247 to be non-conforming, prosecuted 6,,845 and obtained a paltry 764 convictions. That ratio has improved in 2013-14 with 3845 convictions in 10,235 prosecutions but Venkatesh tells The Telegraph that the details of which food products failed tests are not immediately available to the public. “We’d like to know how many failed lead tests.”

And we just don’t know until we find out about lead in buffalo milk in Chennai or paddy in Odisha.

That does not inspire confidence in the monitors of food safety in India.

For example, in the current Maggi hullabaloo we have learned that the Kolkata Municipal Corporation tells The Times of India that the three samples of Maggi is has tested for lead and MSG were within “permissible limits”. Of course, it’s unclear what “permissible limits” even means for presence of lead in food products. But the results hardly inspire consumer confidence because as the Times News Network notes West Bengal is among the worst states for collecting and testing food samples. The annual report from FSSAI shows that in 2012-13 only 91 samples were tested in the state compared to 13,554 in Uttar Pradesh. Even Arunachal Pradesh tested more samples than West Bengal.

In a situation like this the consumer is pretty much left to the mercies and goodwill of the corporation. And companies take full advantage of our lack of standards. Business Standard reports that most paint companies in India have dangerous levels of lead in the enamel paints they sell in this country but we have no mandatory standard for regulating lead in paints only a voluntary code laid down by the Bureau of Indian Standards. The Centre for Science and Environment says in a 2008 study they found that "the biggest and best companies had lead levels 180 times the voluntary standard." Most governments have tried to phase out lead in paints some 20 years ago. The New York Times’ Gardiner Harris’ child’s respiratory problems dramatically highlighted Delhi’s choking pollution and made much news. Lead wreaks havoc far more insidiously.

“We regularly monitor all our raw material for lead, including testing by accredited laboratories which have consistently shown levels in MAGGI Noodles to be within permissible limits,” says Maggi in a statement trying to exert damage control over the situation. Nestle claims it has submitted 600 product batches to an external laboratory for independent analysis and tested almost 1,000 batches in its own accredited laboratory. Those samples represent almost 125 million packets. In a way Nestle is trying to claim it is doing far more due diligence than the food inspectors themselves.

“Yes. We are confident that our MAGGI Noodle products in India and elsewhere are absolutely safe for consumption,” says Maggi bravely. Whether that bolsters consumer confidence remains to be seen.

But one thing is absolutely clear. Delhi has a pollution problem that has is much bigger than the travails of The New York Times’ Gardiner Harris. And India has a food safety problem and environment problem that’s much bigger than Maggi. And if we think this wake-up call is about a bowl of noodles we are all living in a fool’s paradise.

Maggi is just one battlefront in a far larger war is about food safety.

Updated Date: Jun 05, 2015 07:16:35 IST