What is the controversy around Maggi? What have tests shown?
A officer of the UP Food Safety and Drug Administration based in Barabanki ordered tests on a dozen samples of Nestle’s Maggi instant noodles at the state laboratory in Gorakhpur, and repeat tests at the Central Food Laboratory in Kolkata, a referral lab.
The Gorakhpur lab tested for monosodium glutamate (MSG) to check Nestle’s claim that Maggi had none. Both tests found MSG; in addition, the Kolkata lab found “very high quantities” of lead — 17.2 parts per million — according to UP authorities.
Based on the findings, UP FDA filed a complaint in a Barabanki court. On Monday, Food Minister Ram Vilas Paswan directed the statutory regulator, Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), to conduct nationwide tests on Maggi. Consumer Affairs Additional Secretary G Gurucharan said all parameters, not just lead and MSG, would be tested.
What rules govern “instant noodles” (such as Maggi) under FSSAI?
According to Food Safety and Standards Rules, 2011, MSG, a “flavour enhancer”, should not be added to food for infants below 12 months. MSG is not permitted in over 50 items, including “Pastas and noodles (only dried products)”, but is allowed in the seasoning used for noodles and pastas.
Under Food Safety and Standards (Contaminants, Toxins and Residues) Regulations, 2011, permissible levels of lead range from 0.2 parts per million in infant milk substitute and infant foods to 10 ppm in categories like baking powder, tea, dehydrated onions, dried herbs and spices flavourings. For instant noodles included in the “foods not specified category”, the permitted level of lead is 2.5 ppm.
Instant noodles like Maggi are identified under food category code 6.4.3, which includes “pre-cooked pastas and noodles and like products” that are “pre-gelatinised, heated and dried prior to sale”. These categories of food are governed by Codex international standard 249, standards of food safety recognised by WHO. The masala used in these noodles is identified in code 12.2, which includes herbs, spices, masalas, seasonings, and condiments (eg., seasoning for instant noodles), where the use is “intended to enhance the aroma and taste of food”, according to FSSAI regulations.
Why do noodles have MSG and lead?
MSG stimulates the nervous system and makes food appear tastier. It is widely used in “Indian Chinese” food. The US FDA says MSG is “generally recognized as safe”, the same as salt, pepper, vinegar and baking powder. Glutamate is present in many natural foods including tomato, mushroom, fungi and cheese. In “extreme cases”, MSG may cause some reactions in the body; “however, researchers have found no definitive evidence of a link between MSG and these symptoms,” according to a Mayo Clinic note on allergies.
The time and frequency of exposure has a bearing too. “Even if a product is satisfying MSG limits, and one is consuming it in large quantities or very frequently, it may be harmful,” said Dr Uday Annapure of Institute of Chemical Technology, Mumbai.
The lead, according to scientists, may come from the raw materials — water or flavouring material — or packaging, or the curling agent. “Lead is not an essential component of noodles. Raw materials are not periodically evaluated in India; before FSSAI introduced new regulations in 2011, we were following the PFA Act of the 1950s. Regular checks of raw materials will help generate a database of possible toxic components for every ingredient, we will know where these are coming from. Such tests should be conducted at least every five years,” Dr Annapure said.
What does Nestle say?
Nestle India said on May 21, “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 sold in India, which all contain glutamate. We believe that the authorities’ tests may have detected glutamate, which occurs naturally in many foods.”
FSSAI-approved testing methods for MSG only test for glutamic acid, which is a component of several foods, including hydrolised vegetable proteins. “Tests in India are not as sensitive as those in developed countries, where individual sources of every component can be identified,” Dr Annapure said.
Nestle India has also said it “regularly monitors” for lead, including testing by accredited laboratories. On June 1, the company said it had submitted samples from almost 600 product batches to an “external laboratory” for an “independent analysis”, but did not identify the lab. It also said it had conducted in-house tests on 1,000 samples at its accredited laboratory. “These samples represent around 125 million packets. All the results of these internal and external tests show that lead levels are well within the limits specified by food regulations and that Maggi noodles are safe to eat. We are sharing these results with the authorities,” Nestle said.
Are brand ambassadors culpable too?
Consumer Affairs official Gurucharan said on Monday said brand ambassadors and retailers who sold Maggi “with knowledge” about their side effects would be “liable for action” if FSSAI identified irregularities. “They would be liable for action if the advertisements are found to be misleading. It becomes a misleading advertisement if it is found that the product does not have the attributes that the manufacturer professed. And if the brand ambassador has promoted that product and said specifically that the product has those attributes, they are also certainly liable for action,” Gurucharan said. Courts in Muzaffarpur and Barabanki on Tuesday ordered FIRs against Madhuri Dixit, Amitabh Bachchan and Preity Zinta for endorsing Maggi.