“Your Maggi is Safe, Has Always Been,” read half-page advertisements in several leading newspapers over the first weekend of January 2019. The campaign was similar to the media blitz undertaken by the brand, during its relaunch in 2015, after the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) ban on its sale was lifted.
But the media campaign is not the only similarity. Like the turbulent months in 2014-2015, the “lead” controversy would be back to haunt one of Nestle’s most popular brands – Maggi – with the Supreme Court reviving the class-action lawsuit filed by the government in the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (NCDRC).
Here’s all you need to know about why India’s most popular instant noodle brand is embroiled in a controversy – again.
What Has Reignited the Maggi Controversy?
The Supreme Court, on 3 January, revived the government case in the NCDRC against Nestle India seeking damages of Rs 640 crore alleging unfair trade practices, false labelling and misleading advertisements.
The top court had on 16 December 2015 stayed the proceedings before the NCDRC and directed the CFTRI (Central Food Technological Research Institute, Mysuru) to place its test report before it.
A bench of Justices DY Chandrachud and Hemant Gupta was told by senior advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi, appearing for Nestle India, that test report of the Mysuru lab had been submitted. The report found that lead content in Maggi noodles was well within the limit.
“Why should we be eating Maggi with lead in it?” Justice Chandrachud asked Singhvi, who replied that the lead content in the noodles was well within the permissible limit. He further stated that there was some amount of lead in various other products.
According to The Times of India, this was part of a lighter exchange between the judge and Nestle’s lawyer.
The bench said the CFTRI report, submitted to the apex court in April 2016, where the samples of Maggi noodles were tested following earlier orders of the court, will form the basis for the proceedings before the NCDRC.
"We are of the view that CFTRI report be evaluated by the NCDRC in the complaint before it. It will not be appropriate for this court to pre-empt the jurisdiction of NCDRC... All the rights and contentions of the parties will remain open," the bench said.
How Did Maggi Get into Trouble?
In March 2014, an inspector in Uttar Pradesh noticed a label on a Maggi packet that claimed that it had “no added monosodium glutamate (MSG)”. When the authorities felt that the claim was fairly suspicious, a sample of the ‘two-minute noodles’ was sent to a laboratory in Gorakhpur for test – and to a Kolkata lab for referral tests.
Results showed that Maggi tested positive for MSG. Following this revelation, samples were sent to the Central Food Laboratory in Kolkata in June 2014.
An Indian Express report, quoting authorities, said that the results from Kolkata established that Maggi also contained “very high quantities” of lead – 17.2 parts per million.
Under the Food Safety and Standards Regulations, 2011, the permitted level of lead in instant noodles (classified under the category of foods not specified) is 2.5 parts per million.
The quantity of lead found in Maggi was reportedly 1,000 times more than what Nestle India had claimed, thus subjecting Maggi to being a cause of contention and controversy.
From 3 June 2015 to 16 June 2015, multiple states in India banned what was until then considered India’s favourite instant noodles brand. During this period, Nestle India estimated its losses at Rs 320 crore.
What Did the Government Do Next?
The Consumer Affairs Ministry had in 2015 filed a complaint against Nestle India before the NCDRC using a provision for the first time in the nearly three-decade-old Consumer Protection Act.
It had filed a complaint against Nestle for causing harm to Indian consumers by allegedly indulging in unfair trade practices and false labelling related to Maggi noodles.
It was for the first time that the government had taken action under Section 12-1-D of the Consumer Protection Act, under which both the Centre and states have powers to file complaints, reported PTI.
In the petition filed before the NCDRC, the ministry had charged that Nestle India has misled consumers claiming that its Maggi noodle was healthy, pointing to its caption – ‘Taste bhi healthy bhi.’
Nestle then had to withdraw Maggi from the market over allegations of high lead content and presence of MSG.
The food safety regulator FSSAI had banned Maggi noodles after it found excess level of lead in samples, terming it as “unsafe and hazardous” for human consumption. According to PTI, it had also said Nestle violated labelling regulations on taste enhancer ‘MSG’ and ordered the company to submit a compliance report on its orders.
While the Bombay High Court quashed the ban, the Consumer Affairs Ministry, at the same time, had filed a class-action lawsuit of about Rs 640 crore against Nestle India.
Brand Ambassadors Slammed for Association
It was not just Nestle India that was affected by the Maggi controversy but also the star ambassadors associated with the brand.
On 2 June 2015, an FIR was filed against Bollywood actors Amitabh Bachchan, Madhuri Dixit and Preity Zinta for allegedly endorsing a brand that was considered “unsafe.”
What Was Nestle's Response to the Debacle?
On 21 May, Nestle India released a statement denying that there was MSG content in the noodles.
“We do not add MSG to our Maggi noodles sold in India and this is stated on the concerned product. However, we use hydrolysed groundnut protein, onion powder and wheat flour to make Maggi noodles sell in India, which all contain glutamate. We believe that the authorities’ tests may have detected glutamate, which occurs naturally in many foods,” The Indian Express reported, quoting Nestle India’s statement.
Among other measures taken by the company, it listed that it“regularly monitors” the product for lead, by testing it at accredited laboratories. On 1 June, the company claimed that it had submitted samples from almost 600 product batches to an “external laboratory” but did not reveal the laboratory’s identity.
Furthermore, according to the Nestle website, the company filed a legal petition with the Bombay High Court against the ban, arguing that they were not “properly heard.”
They added that the laboratories that tested the product for lead were not accredited for lead testing and that tests by the Food Standards Authorities (FSA) in six other countries – the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, Vietnam and New Zealand –showed that Maggi was fit for consumption.
The Bombay High Court quashed the rulings of the Indian food regulators on the basis that “principles of natural justice were not followed.”
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