Centre pulls plug on Maggi in first recall of food item in India

The Maggi imbroglio escalated to an unprecedented level on Friday, with India’s food regulator ordering a total recall of all nine variants of the best-selling instant noodles brand. This is the first ever recall of a popular food product in India.

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The dispute has placed the processed food industry, regulators, government, and even consumers in uncharted territory.

The Food Standards and Safety Authority of India (FSSAI) which is entrusted with ensuring that all food in India is safe, issued an eight-page statement pointing out three “major” violations by Nestle, and kept options open for prosecution on these counts under the Food Safety and Standards Act 2006.

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The violations are — presence of lead in the product in excess of the maximum permissible levels of 2.5 parts per million (ppm), misleading consumers by printing “No added MSG” on the Maggi packets and release of Maggi Oats Masala Noodles without risk assessment and grant of product approval.

Simultaneously, Maggi producer Nestle India, which controls over 60% of the instant noodles market in the country, announced a Maggi withdrawal from the shelves “despite it being safe” and only because of “unfounded concerns” and “an environment of confusion for the consumer”.

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A high level Nestle delegation, led by its global CEO, met FSSAI officials at their Delhi headquarters on Thursday and disputed the claims about lead being found in the product, the MSG content and the Maggi oats noodles issue. The FSSAI rebutted each of these arguments in detail.

According to Nestle, Maggi noodles packs contain a tastemaker sachet and the noodles cake. Both parts put together should be tested for lead levels, not separately. FSSAI has rejected this and said that they will test the product as it is sold — in two parts — not as it is processed by the consumer.

“Standards have to be applied in respect of each of these two components independently and have no linkage with the processing of the end product as it is consumed”, it said.

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Experts believe this is a grey zone with no clear law. A higher lead content of the tastemaker will get diluted and fall below the permitted level when mixed with the noodles cake. But the FSSAI argued that consumers are going to add water while making Maggi so should they start taking the water also into consideration?

Giving details of lead tests from various states, FSSAI said that in Delhi, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu, lead levels were found to be higher than that permissible. It said that Nestle had claimed in 2012 that lead levels were just 0.0153ppm in its noodles. Now tests were indicating levels as high as 17.2ppm which is dangerously high. The FSSAI also said that reports from certain other states were not in the desired format and hence they had been sent back for clarification.

Dismissing Nestle’s claim regarding the advisory “No added MSG” printed on Maggi packs, the FSSAI said that rules require that no additional information than required by law should be given on packages so that consumers are not confused. It quoted from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) document saying that many food items contain glutamate in natural form (like cereals) and it is not correct to declare that there is no added MSG when such products are being added. This, according to FSSAI, is misleading the consumers.
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On the Maggi oats noodles issue, the FSSAI strongly came down on Nestle, saying that they launched a new product without going through the due process of risk assessment and approval, violating the law.

So, what happens now? The FSSAI has called upon Nestle to “re-ascertain the safety of its products” as per the law. It has also told Nestle to show cause within 15 days as to why permission to produce Maggi noodles should not be withdrawn. Nestle has been asked to report to the FSSAI on a daily basis, the withdrawal of Maggi from India.

As indicated by the regulator, food safety commissioners in states are free to launch prosecutions against Nestle for violation of the law on various counts. So, Nestle appears to be heading for a tough time in the coming days.

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