Indians have cheered the return of their ubiquitous Maggi noodles after a government ban over possible high lead content prompted Nestle to withdraw the product five months ago, snapping up tens of thousands of packets that went on sale on an e-commerce site.
Nestle India, according to media reports, has shipped at least 25 million packs of the instant noodle to retailers across 100 cities through some 300 distributors. On the e-commerce site, 72,000 units of the product were sold within five minutes of the launch.
The bigger question, however, still remains: why was it banned in the first place? Was it a high-decibel media campaign against the noodles that forced a reluctant government’s hand, or the product was actually harmful? Given that Maggi had been around for more than three decades, feeding generations across the lengths and breadth of the country, the argument behind its ban – that it was dangerous for human consumption – was facile at best to start with.
High-decibel media frenzy killed the brand in a matter of few days. Some of the problem also lay at Nestlé’s door – it didn’t realize the impact of crisis that seemingly appeared from nowhere surprising the multinational that would have never imagined that its best-known and best-selling product would come under such a severe attack.
Now that Maggi is back in the kitchen, there is a need for a bigger debate on issues around food safely and standardization in the country. Is the food regulator fully equipped to conduct tests on products that we consume? Does it have the right expertise and technology to examine our food and declare them safe or otherwise? Are the testing labs up to the standard? Do we need to revise the laws or we need to learn more so that people get to eat what they want, without the fear of not waking up the next morning?
As activism increases and consumer seek alternative choices in a world where eating habits have been changing fast, it falls upon the regulator to ensure that the food we eat is not only certified to be safe, but is indeed safe to consume.
Nestle has a ready argument – it conducts extensive testing of not only the raw material, but also the final product. The fact that food regulators in other countries cleared the Indian-made product also raises questions about the veracity of tests in local labs, and the possible nexus between competitors, distributors and state-level inspectors against a brand that has been part of Indian kitchens for well over two generations.
More importantly, one also needs to understand whether government authorities necessarily understand the implications around banning food items on grounds that do not stand up to bigger questions. Reports that the Maharashtra government plans to take the matter up to the Supreme Court to ensure the ban remains after Nestle received respite from the Bombay High Court probably shows a certain degree of ignorance about global best practices on food-related issues.
These are tough questions that we hope will be answered over time. For the time being we might as well enjoy the taste of Maggi.