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Taste bhi, health bhi? Betrayal by Maggi has broken our good Indian hearts

It won’t even take two minutes to figure out that lead in your Maggi is the least of India’s food safety problems. This is a country where two dozen children died in one fell swoop after their free lunch at school – rice, beans, potato curry and soy balls. India Today lets us know that much of that delicious street chaat Delhi is famous for could be contaminated with fecal matter, the E. Coli bacteria in particular. Where the Most Probably Number (MPN) of coliform bacteria should be 50 or less, it was as high as 2,400 in some of those delicious snacks. And Girish Shahane writes in Scroll.in that the “greatest lead-related scandal” is not about paint or Maggi but that “manufacturers of ayurvedic medications are permitted to use toxic heavy metals like lead, mercury, and arsenic” and he’s not buying the claim that the ayurvedic purification process of sodhana removes their toxicity.

So why this kolaveri about two-minute noodles?

 Taste bhi, health bhi? Betrayal by Maggi has broken our good Indian heartsIt’s because Maggi was more than just a packet of instant noodles. In a socialist India where Coca Cola was forbidden and we wore rip-off Lavis jeans, Maggi in 1983 felt almost like cosmopolitanism in a packet. It was bright, it was perky, it was fast. It broke the rules of cooking. It was not labour intensive. Nothing needed to be chopped, ground or grated. It carried a whiff of independence. Anyone could do it. And it still had a masala flavour. There was an East-meets-West, home-meets-world feel about Maggi and its promise of instant gratification in our land of roti-chawal. That’s why as India opened up to the world, and many other kinds of instant foods and heat-and-serve horrors flooded the supermarkets, Maggi survived without even adding any new and exciting flavours. It was by then a classic. The brand had become the product – like Xerox and Google. Everyone had a Maggi memory – the schoolchild’s tiffin, the hostel student’s dinner, the newly-married working couple’s trusty stand-by. Unlike instant noodles in the US which was the epitome of the sad bachelor with a hot-plate, Maggi managed to sell itself in India as piping hot mother’s love.

No wonder in the new India, Maggi has acquired what Firstpost’s Rajyasree Sen describes as a sort of “grunge cool” where once-cheap Maggi can cost Rs 300 and come with Arrabiata sauce or even drizzled with truffle oil and topped with pan-seared Foie gras. This, says Sen, is simply “nostalgia-themed food fancy-dress party.”

Now it turns out that, forget fancy dress, the emperor has no clothes. The bad news keeps piling on. Lead. MSG. A temporary distribution halt in Kerala, a law suit in Uttar Pradesh, an FIR against its celebrity brand ambassadors in Bihar. The Future Group, the country's biggest retailer has decided to stop stocking Maggi. Nestle claims its in-house tests and an independent laboratory have confirmed the product is “safe to eat” and lead levels are within “permissible” limits.

But the real leaden feeling is about a feeling of betrayal. We could forgive Maggi for always taking more than those promised two minutes to cook but it's harder to forgive a betrayal of nostalgia. It’s akin to when Coke, America’s iconic drink, that had marketed itself as American-ness in a bottle, found itself dubbed “Killer Coke” because of stories of health hazards. Bloomberg News reported that in the 1970s, the average person doubled the amount of soda they drank. By 1980s it had overtaken tap water. But by 2005 soda consumption had started dropping and they have not stopped. Americans still drink 450 cans a year but the fizz is gone. “We actually believe if you let this go too long, another three or five years, the consumer will walk away from carbonated soft drinks,” worries Indra Nooyi, the CEO of PepsiCo.

Maggi, says a colleague, seems to be having its "Coca Cola moment".

Except Maggi is in a worse bind because Coca Cola only marketed itself as “Life Tastes Good” not as “Life Tastes Healthy”.

Maggi however promised “Taste bhi health bhi”. That’s where the betrayal stings more. Maggi’s sunny cheery ads promised us a snack that kids loved and mothers could serve without feeling any deep-fried guilt. An analysis of Maggi’s marketing strategy clearly says “it was positioned as a hygienic home-made snack, a smart move.” But Nestle realized quickly that its target in India was not the working woman. It was really children and “quickly a strategy was developed to capture the kids segment with various tools of sales promotion like pencils, fun books, Maggi clubs.”

But it also sold itself to the mothers. Maggi promised to provide 20 percent of RDA of calcium and protein. And while it never experimented with flavours it introduced Atta and Dal Atta noodles and Maggi Oat noodles to sell that dream of a fun and convenient snack with nutritional value. Madhuri Dixit, Preity Zinta and Amitabh Bachchan were roped in to underscore that messaging. Zinta emphasized the “fun” part, Dixit the “good mommy” part and the gravitas of Big B sealed the deal. Lock kiya jaye basically. When Cup O Maggi hit the market its positioning was "Healthy Snack Anywhere, Anytime".

Of course in our heart of hearts we knew it was too good to be true. As graphic novelist Samit Basu quipped on Twitter “Business idea: nuclear shelters made out of solid Maggi.” There was even a series of playful #twominutemaggi poems that had its fifteen seconds of fame on Twitter where Maggi mostly rhymed with “saggy” and “baggy”.

As Rajyasree Sen points out “you have to be slightly dim to think that instead of making three chapatis for your child or pouring him or her a bowl of oats” you can just snip open a packet of Maggi and conjure up a “nutritious meal thanks to some Madhuri Maggic.” Maggi just allowed us to be lazy and feel vaguely virtuous about it.

But it is also true that Maggi pushed that health message in ways big and small. While it never played around with its flavours it experimented with packet size, slashing prices to woo lower income Indians, very consciously targeting the BoP or Bottom of Pyramid customer. Maggi Rasile Chow and Masala-ae-Magic were very much about Nestle going all out for the hinterland and low-income market. Rasile Chow writes DNA was “especially developed for rural/semi-urban markets to provide ‘a low-cost tasty light meal that is fortified with iron’” while Masala-e-Magic was fortified with iron, iodine and Vitamin A and offered up as the gift of the Maggi bearing the micronutrient versions of gold, frankincense and myrrh. This was Maggi the Good “leveraging its strength to drive affordable nutrition.”

It’s that word “nutrition” that’s now coming back to haunt Maggi and land its celebrity endorsers into a soup. Another Maggie was famously not for turning but will this Maggi just have to eat its words?

Or as Nilanjana Roy wrote almost presciently in one of those #TwoMinuteMaggi poems:
My heart was fine, but now it's droopy/ Like overcooked #Maggi, mushy and soupy.

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Updated Date: Jun 04, 2015 07:19:20 IST