Nestle’s travails with regulatory authorities over its Maggi brand last week is a wake-up call for food & beverage companies, says Delhi-based activist body Centre for Science & Environment (CSE). “I am happy that regulators are testing food products and taking action. As long as you don’t test, you will not know what is going into these. With packaged food consumption on the rise in India, law enforcement will have to get stringent,” said CSE Deputy Director-General Chandra Bhushan.
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Last week, official agencies in Maharashtra and Gujarat collected samples of Maggi to test whether it contained more than the permissible amounts of lead and monosodium glutamate (MSG). This was in response to findings by the Food & Drug Administration in Uttar Pradesh that Maggi contained lead and MSG was beyond the permissible limit. While high levels of lead in food are known to be harmful, MSG is a flavour enhancer, commonly added to Chinese food. To Indians, it is known as ajinomoto, thanks to the Japanese company of the same name that has been manufacturing it for over 100 years. ALSO READ: FDA orders recall of Maggi noodles, says found excess leadBhushan of CSE says MSG is a non-essential salt that should not be added to food at all.
However, food processing and catering industries have for long used MSG to enhance the flavour of food, say experts. According to Nestle, there are no stated levels of MSG in India and since it does not add any artificial glutamate in Maggi, it never mentions the chemical on the packets. “We use hydolysed 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,” the company said. It also said that in its routine tests over the years, it never found Maggi containing more than 0.03 ppm of lead. ALSO READ: UP FDA tests more samples of Maggi after ordering recall It was CSE that first raised the issue of pesticides in colas, 12 years earlier, prompting the then government led by Atal Behari Vajyapee to set up a joint parliamentary committee under Sharad Pawar to probe the matter. This was only the fourth JPC to be then constituted, a token of the matter’s seriousness. The issue didn’t end there. The second episode of pesticide in colas, in 2006 and raised again by CSE, prompted the then government, led by Manmohan Singh, to overhaul food regulation in the country altogether. The Food Safety & Standards (FSS) Act, which mandates what should go into packaged foods and to what extent, was enacted in the same year. This was done in a bid to make food regulation relevant to the times, till then governed by the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, 1954. There were also a series of commodity-specific laws such as the Fruit Products Order, 1955; Meat Food Products Order, 1973; Milk and Milk Products Order, 1992; and Vegetable Oil Products (Regulation) Order, 1998, which were all brought under the purview of the FSS Act. Activists have repeatedly complained that enforcement of the FSS Act remains weak. However, in an open letter recently, the Food Safety & Standards Authority of India, the apex regulator, said it was both protecting the interests of consumers and ensuring food safety standards were met.