Maggi Noodles suddenly finds itself in hot water. The UP Food Safety and Drug Administration’s order to recall of 2,00,000 packets of Maggi has prompted the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India to initiate a widening probe across states, and already the Kerala government has prohibited its sale in 1,200 state-run outlets while Delhi has placed a 15-day ban on selling the product. The grim controversy acquired an unexpected dash of glamour when a Bihar court ordered FIRs against Bollywood film stars who endorsed Maggi. The merits of such a step are obviously questionable — for instance, why target the celebrity endorsers and not the publishers and broadcasters of the advertisements? It could lead to an endlessly unravelling thread of responsibility, taking down print and electronic media, websites and any other party involved in the production or publication of the ads. But that would not answer the very real concern about the safety of packaged food in India.
Two charges have been made against Nestle, which produces Maggi. First, tests have found traces of lead that exceed the prescribed limit of 2.5 parts per million. Second, samples contained quantities of monosodium glutamate (MSG), a substance proscribed in 50 food items, including “Pastas and noodles (only dried products)”. The presence of MSG is also not mentioned on Maggi packets, leaving Nestle open to charges of “misbranding”. As a wider array of packaged items comes under inspection, food companies have been nudged into action, with plans to step up communication with consumers and to increase transparency. It should not have taken a crisis to press them into accountability.
What the present controversy underlines most is the inadequacy of government mechanisms to ensure food safety. The avalanche of bans now imposed on Maggi has a ring of déjà vu. In 2003, after the Centre of Science and Environment found pesticide in fizzy drinks, a joint parliamentary committee was formed. It recommended standards for carbonated water but it took the health ministry three years to notify them. When even higher levels of pesticide were found in 2006, states imposed the same hasty bans on the sale of fizzy drinks. Government responses to the problem of food safety is sporadic and spurred by sudden alarms. Union Food Minister Ramvilas Paswan now promises a tough law to deal with the production of harmful food products and new commissions to replace consumer forums. Question is, will the urgency remain after the clamour has died down?
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