The essential discussion should be about the poisons in our food chain.
The Maggi Noodles controversy has triggered a much-needed debate on food safety standards in India. Unfortunately, as with most such debates, attention tends to focus on the specifics, in this instance the culpability of the multinational company Nestle in marketing a product that allegedly contained not just monosodium glutamate (MSG) but also contained lead above permissible levels, instead of discussing how and why this happens.
The question of whether Nestle was negligent about the quality of its product, and deliberately mislabelled it as not containing MSG when it apparently did, is still being debated as the tests on the product varied from one government certified laboratory to another. Rather than establish conclusively that its product was safe, the company chose to withdraw it. Yet, the problem is far from resolved and many questions remain unanswered. If, as some laboratory tests proved, the noodles did have higher than permissible levels of lead, how did this happen? Was it through the wrapping, which is outsourced by Nestle to another company, was it due to the water used in manufacturing the product or from the machines used to manufacture it? Apart from the lead, did the company add MSG to the product but claim it did not, knowing India’s lax regulatory regime? Or did the tests show up other types of glutamate that are present in the ingredients but are not necessarily MSG? These are questions that need to be answered as the issue is not just about the culpability of this one multinational but any number of other companies, including Indian companies, that could face similar challenges if their products are tested.
The second, and related, aspect is the promotion of such products as healthy, and targeting them at children. Maggi Noodles has conducted a particularly aggressive advertising campaign using well-known actors to promote the product as convenient, tasty and a healthy snack for children. Even if the product did not contain MSG or lead, is it really a “healthy” snack? The consumption of such convenience foods and other junk foods and their link to obesity and other health problems in children has been a subject of much debate in the West. In India, the opening up of the economy has brought with it “global” aspirational products leading to a switch from traditional and healthy home-cooked foods to such instant products.
The results are now evident in the levels of under-nutrition in children who are being fed a diet of such junk. One must remember that the promotion of such foods is not very different from the selling of infant formula in the 1970s, incidentally by Nestle, as the best way for mothers to ensure that their babies are healthy. What happened was precisely the opposite. From safe breastfeeding, mothers switched to infant formula. Only after doctors across the world launched a campaign against Nestle did the company change its marketing strategy and acknowledge that there was no substitute for breast milk.
Apart from the specifics of the Maggi issue, one crucial aspect of this debate is that of food safety standards in India and the regulatory system, evidently something of a work in progress. A multitude of laws dealing with food standards was finally brought under one law, the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006. Two years later, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) was established and only in 2011 were the regulations put in place. Although there are five central food-testing laboratories and government and private accredited laboratories in all states, many of these are poorly equipped and inadequately staffed. Despite these constraints, once in a while, they manage to catch an offender. But for every Maggi Noodles caught there are scores that get away.
However, the problem is not limited to packaged goods. Every year, an inestimable number of people, including young children, fall ill or die because they consume food that is either substandard or is contaminated. Milk, fruits, vegetables or meat are loaded with all manner of contaminants from pesticide residues to trace metals. In fact, what is missing in the discussion is the source of the contamination. Over the years, there have been numerous incidents of pesticide residues found in bottled drinks and in milk. The link to the overuse of pesticides and the resultant contamination of soil and water is more than obvious. Yet, this aspect remains unchanged, and if anything, has become worse. Similarly, lead finds its way into the food chain because of the careless processes involving recycling of lead-based products and the continuing use of lead in paint and in water pipes. While it is important to focus on contamination of foods and possible deliberate neglect, we also need to tackle the source of contamination. The grim reality is that poisons have infected the entire food chain. Regulations alone will not curb food contamination unless we look closely at the process of food production in this country.
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