Maggi scare highlights India's food woes
FROM college students taking a break for a midnight snack during long hours of study, to soldiers braving the icy winds of Kashmir and harried housewives putting together a quick meal for their families, Maggi noodles have become an indispensable part of "fast food" in India over the past decades.
So, when a government lab in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh found last month that samples of Maggi had more than the acceptable levels of lead and flavouring agent monosodium glutamate (MSG), many Indians were shocked.
Their faith in the safety of a leading brand from a large multinational company was shaken. The most popular of Nestle's many brands, Maggi "two-minute noodles" was a byword for modern convenience and fast food. The top executives at the company felt compelled to host a press conference, where the safety of the product was reiterated. But food-testing laboratories in nine states have found that safety norms had been violated, while tests are ongoing in another seven states.
The country's food regulator, Food Safety and Standards Authority of India, was categorical in its assessment.
"It is clear from the reports received from various states that there is overwhelming evidence of the said food products being unsafe and hazardous for human consumption," it said.
The lead found in most of the samples tested was well above the maximum permissible level of 2.5 part per million, and short-term exposure to high levels of lead can cause brain damage, paralysis, anaemia and gastrointestinal symptoms, the regulator noted. Long-term exposure can cause damage to the kidneys, and reproductive and immune systems, in addition to effects on the nervous system.
MSG, a widely used flavouring agent, is also problematic. Researchers have established that MSG is often linked with rising obesity rates and inflammation within the body, particularly the liver.
The Indian furore has had international repercussions, with Britain's Food Standards Agency requesting tests on Maggi noodles and the European Commission likely to investigate reports of high lead levels. Singapore temporarily suspended sales of Maggi noodles from India, but allowed their sale again after safety tests.
BIG FIRMS STUMBLE TOO
This is not the first time that leading multinational food brands have been found lacking.
More than a decade ago, worms were found in some Cadbury's chocolates. In 2006, environmental groups raised a furore when they said they found traces of pesticide in Coca-Cola and Pepsi.
Nestle - one of the largest food-producing multinationals with sales of over 100 billion rupees (S$2.1 billion) in India - has much to lose if it is unable to counter the government and the fury on social media. A reputation for hygiene built up over a century in the country could easily be squandered in this controversy.
What has been highlighted is food contamination, and how even large multinationals can be prone to it. There is undoubtedly a sense that hugely profitable multinationals in the food business have got their just deserts. The growing middle class with a foot firmly in social media is an important new factor to take into account.
One positive spin-off could be that the food regulator is taken more seriously. Local brands should also face the same scrutiny as Nestle has. If there is more strict regulation all round, food standards will go up.
'FAST FOOD NATION'
What seems to have escaped attention is the very nature of junk food, appealing in taste perhaps, but low in nutritional value.
Vandana Shiva, a nutritional food activist, pointed out: "Until globalisation forced India's food and agriculture policies to change, most of the food in India was processed at the household and cottage level. In fact, food processing was reserved for the small-scale sector, especially for reasons of employment and food safety. And food processing was largely a women's expertise. The junk-food industry of the West succeeded in shutting down India's abundant indigenous small-scale food processing industries."
She added: "At a time when the world is waking up to local, artisanal food systems, we are destroying our rich heritage, culture and economy of food. The richness and diversity of India's food culture are amazing. We have to decide whether to become a nation of food diversity, high employment in producing quality food and low risks of food safety; or should we follow the United States and become a 'fast food nation', thoughtlessly stuffing junk into our mouths?"
NUTRITIOUS BUT UNSAFE
This brings us to the tricky business of street food. It is affordable for most working Indians, gives employment to a vast number of entrepreneurs and is nutritional.
Unfortunately, street vendors often have to rely on dirty water, which contains high levels of coliform bacteria (from water contaminated with faecal matter).
A recent study by the Institute of Hotel Management, Catering and Nutrition in Delhi found 50 times the permissible coliform bacteria level in Indian street-food samples. The prime reason is dirty water combined with the proximity of food stalls to open drains and garbage.
In Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, street vendors have access to clean water. In India, they are hounded by police and the local authorities, and criminalised.
The food they serve is actually fresh and nutritious. But they are prevented from making it safe. That is a quandary the government will have to face, as surely as it faces the Nestle one.
The writer is a Mumbai-based journalist. This article was first published in The Business Times.