The Maggi controversy highlights many complex issues that face our food industry. It encompasses aspects such as the lax regulatory issues that govern our food industry, the exploitation of our weak punitive guidelines, the extreme muscle power that multi national companies (MNC's) enjoy in this country, the lack of standard testing labs and in the end the very source of the ingredients for food manufacturing - our crops and ground water. The Maggi story is a supreme example of all this.
Enough has been discussed by various networks and most of their articulation has been highly emotional condemning all the MNC's and their arguments has at times swayed towards being irrational.
Our familiar faces on the visual media have never discussed all these issues together but only in piecemeal and they have lacked depth of understanding of the real problem. Listening to them is like watching the kids play 'passing the parcel', the media blaming the celebrities who endorse the food products, the celebrities blaming the regulatory bodies for giving permission to market the product, the regulatory bodies blaming the politicians for not updating the outdated laws, the politicians blaming the companies and the companies advocates claiming that their food are safe.
The last few nights have seen a real circus taking place during prime time television in India. Similar debates took place when the Pepsi/Coke controversy erupted in 2009, when an NGO pointed out that these drinks were contaminated with high quantity of detergents and pesticides.
Natural Contamination Vs Adulteration
Every year globally 2.2 million lives are lost due to the lack of government policies on food and water safety. However there is a distinct difference between contamination and adulteration.
While natural contamination can be a collective and a larger issue. In the last 50 years our soil has had 170 times increase in the detergent and pesticide content. As a consequence of this, persistent residues have contaminated our food and found their way into the food chain.
Adulteration is willful contamination of food products using harmful substitutes to increase their quantity and this is a crime and is generally perpetuated for profiting by greedy businessman and some companies. This is rampant in India and involves many food products from dairy or from the farms.
If the Maggi story is about adulteration, Nestle the parent company of the product has no forgiveness and need to wrap up their operations in India, however this is highly unlikely. Contamination is more likely the possibility as was the case with Pepsi or Coke.
However, what is important here to understand is that the testing being done by the labs of Nestle is lax in India and inadequate and as a company they don't spend enough resource on testing of their sample products to keep their standards high, as they would do in a western country. This was the same problem with Pepsi and Coke and both the companies got scot-free after some bad publicity. The Government failed to tighten its regulatory framework in 2009 and it is unlikely that anything is likely to happen in 2015.
Source of Lead in the Food Products
The Maggi noodle's lead content is higher than permissible level of lead. The masala samples of Maggi had lead content beyond the prescribed limit of 2.50 ppm. Five samples of masala were found also containing monosodium glutamate (MSG) and there was no mention of this on their label. However Maggi extra delicious noodles sample, Maggi Two Minutes noodles and Maggi Oats noodles all had lead well below the permissible limits. Interestingly the samples in Uttar Pradesh had high lead content but those from Goa were normal. What this may mean is that the contamination of lead maybe higher in one region and normal in another and this would depend on the soil condition of that region.
Lead exposure is responsible for an estimated 143,000 deaths a year worldwide. How does it contaminate food? Lead comes from industrial emissions, car exhaust, batteries, paints, lead pipes, lead bullets, industrial effluents and is added as an additive in petrol. It can also come from contaminated packaging. Lead was found in 2004 in the wrappers of candy in Mexico.
A peculiar reason for seasonal increase of lead in our lakes, rivers, and tanks during the festival season is due to the practice of immersion of idols of gods. A small 2 kg idol of Ganesha usually contains a minimum of 6-8 gm of lead and the bigger idols much more and this can run into kilos. All this contaminates our water supply with toxic levels of lead.
Lead is a stubborn metal and once it contaminates the soil it stays there for a long time and it adheres to the top layer of the soil and finds it way into the water. Lead present in soil may be taken up by plants such as cereals and vegetables, or its particles in air may get deposited on the surfaces of the leaves.
Coming back to Maggi - Where has lead come from in their Noodles. Most experts feel it could be water used to manufacture the noodles and from the vegetables or it could be from the food additives.
Need of the Hour
Naresh Agarwal, Samajwadi Party national general secretary recently raised the issue of food adulteration in Rajya Sabha in Sept 2014 and said, "India should follow other countries like Singapore and ensure stricter punishment to the offenders. The government must bring in stringent rules and existing laws must be reviewed, if required."
In response to the issue raised in the parliament, Indian Health Minister J.P. Nadda, said in Rajya Sabha, "The government understands this is really very serious issue. The government is determined to take steps to better equip the laboratories and train the food inspectors. Some changes are required to be made in the rules." But no policies have so far been forwarded. Unless the regulatory authorities are provided with enough teeth, contamination and adulteration of food products in India will continue unabated and all this discussion ad nauseum will not help.
The penalty for violation in the food industry needs to be severe and in one of the food scandals in Taiwan one of Taiwan's richest man - Wei Ying-Chung was taken into custody and faced a 30-year-jail term. Similar stringent laws are needed in India if the government is serious and wishes to protect the health of its citizens.
While natural soil contamination needs a large scale change in our farm practices and needs to be addressed at various levels, however our food manufacturing industry need to be cognizant of this fact and ensure that the food samples are more rigorously tested to protect the health of the nation. The penalty needs to include not only adulteration but also the lack of rigorous testing of food products before they come to the shelf of the stores.
If the current state continues in India, one wonders if we are doomed as a nation and what kind of health issues and environment will we pass on to our future generations.