On Maggi: (Once) The Love of my Life

The Indian Media got really lucky in the past few months. There was real news to report and they didn’t have to create headlines out of new film releases.

  1. Salman Khan almost went to jail.
  2. A woman – rich and drunk and on the wheel – rammed her Audi into a cab, killing two people. Now there is a whole article about her crying in the lockup all night. Also, moral lessons about how women drinking is most immoral.
  3. The cherished love of most stomachs and tongues of India – Maggi Noodles – was found to be unfit for consumption (not unlike most of the other food we Indians enjoy – including but not limited to water) and consequently banned in several states.

The hysteria around the whole Maggi incident was slightly unreal. We rarely see authorities acting this strongly against anything that is bad for the public. In fact, we rarely see authorities acting in the first place. [But maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. We have lately been setting records for the number of things a country can ban.] And to be honest, it makes me guffaw when Indian authorities talk about quality standards.

Normally, when regulatory watchdogs find potentially dangerous elements in food items, you would expect them to order the defective items off the shelves, charge penalty and ensure corrective action. Total ban on Maggi across states and the strong action against Nestle (and the celebrities who endorsed Maggi, including those who did that more than 10 years back) just seems weird coming from a country whose ministers recently claimed that tobacco has absolutely nothing to do with cancer.

I am not saying there should be no action. I am aware that MNCs are known to compromise on quality and standards in their operations in developing countries and that Maggi would score worse on nutritional value than I did in high school Physics – but I cannot help but notice that this is yet another incident which throws light on the double standards of Indian regulatory authorities.

Firstly, here is a list of things that are probably as dangerous, if not more, than Maggi –

  1. Cigarettes. It is one thing to be enticed by the money dangled as bait by tobacco companies. But to go on record claiming that tobacco has nothing to do with cancer is ridiculous. We are prompt in banning Maggi, but continue to delay mandating larger pictorial warnings on cigarette packs.
  2. Contaminated water. A huge section of our population has little or no access to potable water. And we have all fallen sick more often after eating the roadside paani puri than we did on gobbling a double pack of Maggi all by ourselves. And there are barely any regulations for hygiene standards and quality of water that is used in hotels and restaurants across the country, let alone street vendors.
  3. Last year our Health Minister thought loyalty would stop the spread of AIDS and syphilis and prevent unwanted pregnancies. Condoms are pointless, it seems.
  4. Dirty toilets. And the lack of sanitation facilities. Open defecation is cause of millions of infections and diseases. I have myself suffered a severe case of UTI after using a public urinal.
  5. A government sponsored mid day meal, so contaminated with pesticides that it managed to kill over 20 children.
  6. A superman-cum-doctor who managed over 70 tubectomy surgeries in just 4-6 hours and ended up killing over 10 women.
  7. The air in our national capital. Enough said.

I understand these are all separate cases that come under different jurisdictions and regulatory authorities. But the point remains that I don’t remember any of these incidences being followed up by action as strict and prompt as in the case of Maggi noodles.

That aside, this FDA that has suddenly reared its head sprouting rules and regulations – where the hell has it been all these years? Never before has there been such strict scrutiny of food items in our markets. Not the fruits and vegetables laced with pesticides, not when Diwali sweets and milk are found to be adulterated, not when a whole range of other processed foods contained every harmful product one can think of, including preservatives, sub-standard artificial colours and growth hormones fed to cattle and other livestock. Moreover, large food companies and FMCGs wield a huge amount of influence on the BIS. As a result, they are able to somehow do everything they want and still conform to the vaguely defined norms.

And I am not against strict orders – but thoughtless reactions to these incidences by our authorities will probably do us more harm than good. Nestle is too big a company to suffer anything that would affect it in the long run as a result of this fiasco. India, on the other hand, has a lot to lose.

  1. The ban affects several workers and farmers who make up the supply chain for Maggi. This spice company had to sack 300 employees – because half of its revenue came from supplying spices to Nestle and now that is done with. There were farmers contracted by this company to grow spices. There have been talks to cancel these contracts in case Nestle’s units there are shut down. Several flourmills may also have to shut down. Nestle was sourcing most of its ingredients locally. Did the authorities take a minute to think about that before they decided to impose a countrywide ban? And what about the many workers employed at Nestle units across India?
  1. There are probably thousands of Maggi stalls across the country. Where does this ban leave their owners? Most stories will probably go unreported. But a permanent ban on Maggi noodles is sure to land a lot of people in a financial crunch. They can switch to other brands of instant noodles but if there are others like me, then Maggi will effectively remain irreplaceable.

I wonder how Indian companies would fair had authorities in other countries reacted the way we did now, every time their authorities found our food products to be substandard. Products manufactured by Haldiram’s and even Britannia have often been blocked by the US FDA because of quality issues. They rejected consignments but there was no ban or orders to get these products off the shelves.

What are our regulators trying to prove? Is there some ulterior motive in all this that we are unable to see? Why push the whole matter so far that it starts to look orchestrated?

Action is warranted, not some thoughtless reaction. As the writer in this article aptly describes, “Nothing shows up India as a semi-literate banana republic than this manufactured mischief…Whipping up a nationwide hysteria smacks of regulatory terrorism rather than serious action. “