Whoever thought that noodles—our friendly neighbourhood noodles —would suddenly turn threatening? These are dangerous times: Mangoes are ripened with ammonia; vegetables are treated with carcinogenic pesticides; chicken is injected with overdoses of antibiotics; fish is preserved with formaldehyde, the chemical used to embalm corpses; masala powders are adulterated with dung, sand, saw dust and more. Is it necessary for commerce to be so diabolic? Where can we turn for the simple decencies that ensure the simple safeties of life? Whom can we trust?
The sense of helplessness is greater because the letdown over Maggi noodles has come from Nestle. This is not just another corporation. The world’s largest food company, Nestle has products that are household names—Nescafe, Nespresso, KitKat. In New York-based Reputation Institute’s 2013 list of “global companies with the best reputation”, it became ninth. (Others from the top were BMW, Walt Disney, Rolex, Google, Daimler, Sony, Microsoft and Canon.)
But then, Nestle has also figured in the list of “the world’s least responsible companies” and “the world’s most boycotted companies”. It was the fourth most boycotted after Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Nike. That was the aftermath of what many considered a cardinal sin on the part of Nestle. To promote its processed cow’s milk, it launched an overtly aggressive publicity campaign, claiming that its product was equal in goodness if not better than mother’s breast milk. That was the time when health experts and international agencies were promoting breastfeeding, especially in poor countries where infant death rates were high. These experts considered Nestle’s campaign as unethical, especially since the company often had its sales representatives dressed up as nurses. A “Nestle Boycott” spread across many countries in 1977, three years after a book had come out under the title Baby Killer.
There were no adverse findings against Nestle’s milk itself; it was the marketing people’s claim that it can be given to babies instead of breast milk that turned the tables against the company. In the case of Maggi noodles, the product itself has been found faulty. Despite some typical to-ing and fro-ing (Kerala first said it was harmful, then said it was not; the unseasonal election heat in the state must have disrupted the lab technicians’ mood), it seems rather clear that the noodles had problems. The Delhi Government was precise when it said it had “found up to 4.49 parts per million of lead” in the noodles against the permitted 2.5 ppm. The Central Government formally lodged a written complaint with the Disputes Redressal Commission. More than 1,000 army and navy canteens took Maggi off the shelves until further orders. Denying all charges, Nestle said several samples found defective were past the expiry date. (So what were they doing in the stores?)
The prime suspect in Maggi as in all fast-food items is monosodium glutamate, although Nestle says it does not directly use MSG. Even traces of MSG, direct or indirect, should be suspect because this is a “flavour enhancer”, a magical effect achieved by stimulating the nervous system. Any chemical that can produce such an impact on the nervous system cannot be considered good. To say that no harmful effects have been scientifically established against MSG is like Sharad Pawar saying that endosulfan causing horrible deformities in humans is not proved. (MSG is continuously stimulating the nervous system of those who go in for “Indian Chinese” food in our so-called Chinese restaurants. Perhaps it is deserved punishment for patronising a travesty that is neither Indian nor Chinese, yet denigrates both cuisines).
Late last week a countrywide ban on Maggi coincided with the company’s formal withdrawal of the product. Arguing that India followed testing systems different from the company’s, Nestle chairman said, “We’ll return”. When they do, Maggi will be a most diligently prepared noodle, ready to stand any test. Nestle will do its best to sustain Maggi which accounts for 30 per cent of its sales in India, translating to `1,500 crore in revenue.
But the fight for food safety cannot end. Unhealthy practices are rampant. Out of 49,290 food products sampled by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India in the first six months of 2014-15, 8,469 were found adulterated. Coca-Cola was found to have pesticide residue in it leading to its ban even in Parliament premises. In Nestle’s own baby milk powder, a Coimbatore consumer alleges to have found worms. And there are our mango mafia and vegetables mafia. How do we live? Whom do we trust?