NEW DELHI: Along with some damning comments, India's food safety watchdog on Friday ordered Nestle to "withdraw and recall" all nine Maggi noodle variants, halt their production and also stop exports, saying samples were found to be "unsafe and hazardous" for humans.
Even as the order was placed on the website of the Food Safety Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), the company's global chief executive Paul Bulcke said at a press conference that the popular brand of over 30-year standing in India was "safe" - but had been temporarily withdrawn to regain trust.
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Amid the developments, Reliance Industries said it has decided to temporarily withdraw all brands of instant noodles from its retail stores. This was after some state governments had asked Nestle to withdraw Maggi for between 15-30 days, while Assam banned the chicken variant.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said: "We have so far not found any unwanted material in Maggi samples sent for testing. The tests will continue."
Nestle, meanwhile, moved the Uttarakhand High Court challenging the state's order or Thursday, banning the manufacture, storage, distribution and sale of Maggi Noodles for 90 days.
The food safety body's eight-page order dwelt on three issues: Presence of more-than permissible levels of lead in samples analysed in some states, Nestle's claims that there was no added mono-sodium glutamate and the sale of its oats noodles and tastemaker without prior safety approval.
This was after giving a Nestle team, led by Bulcke and Etienne Benet, the managing director and chief executive of India operations, time on Thursday to explain their position - during which they gave their versions on the three matters.
On lead, the company said, the tests ought to have been done on the noodles and the accompanying tastemakers together, which was rejected by the authority. On Maggi oats noodles with tastemaker, it said it was granted a stay by a court. And on MSG, it claimed lack of clarity in the norms.
But the authority's observations in the order questioned all three contentions.
It said the samples taken in Uttar Pradesh and tested in Kolkata had found lead at 17.2 parts per million (ppm), against the permissible level of 2.5 ppm. Similarly, in Delhi, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu, the tests had confirmed excess levels of the hazardous metal.
"Detection of lead in food product as a heavy metal contaminant beyond permissible levels renders the food product unsafe and hazardous," it said. It also quoted its Irish counterpart as saying this can trigger brain damage, paralysis, anemia and gastrointestinal symptoms.
On the issue of "Maggi oats masala noodles with tastemaker", the authority said while Nestle had applied for its product approval on August 17, 2014, some clarifications were sought for safety and risk assessment.
"The company did not respond to the clarifications within the prescribed time, and as such the application already stands ordered to be closed being non-responsive," it also ordering its withdrawal and compliance report within 24 hours.
On the third issue -- that of mono-sodium glutamate -- it felt intrigued. "It has been noted with concern that the label of the said product specifically mentions thereon 'no added MSG' whereas the product is found to be containing mono-sodium glutamate," it said.
"It defies common understanding as to why the company has to make this assertion when it is not required to do so."
The food safety body also ordered a ban on exports, even as Singapore joined Nepal in stopping Maggi noodles' imports from India.
During the course of the press conference, Bulcke said the company had conducted extensive tests on over 1,000 batches at its own accredited labs, and on 600 others in external labs and all of them indicated that it was safe and well within the regulatory limits in India.
"Our safety measures and standards are same all over the world."
Asked why Maggi was withdrawn, the company did not attribute it to the watchdog order. "Recent developments and growing concern about the product have led to confusion for the consumer to such an extent that we have decided to take the product temporarily off the shelves, inspite of the product being safe," the global chief executive said.
He also said there was no formal sharing of test results with them by the authorities, but added that the company was cooperating with the authorities. “We are engaging with the regulator. The tests we have done have not found any lead.”
Asked how the company viewed the impact of such developments with stocks plunging three straight days on the bourses in India: he said: "Everything is linked to consumer trust for us. It is more important how it is impacting the consumer trust."