Indians love putting Maggi in their mouths – the country has the highest volume sales of Maggi noodles anywhere in the world, and in-country sales contribute almost 30% to Nestle India’s revenue.
The Indian government, on the other hand, loves putting its foot in its mouth through assorted channels and often in less than two minutes.
That is the only conclusion I can draw from the statement by G Gurucharan, additional secretary in the department of consumer affairs, saying that the government may go after actors like Amitabh Bachchan, Madhuri Dixit and Preity Zinta, all of who are or have been brand ambassadors for the umami-laden snack.
"Though the main action is being taken by FSSAI, we have powers to take action against those involved in misleading advertisements," Gurucharan has been quoted as saying.
The move comes after a test by the Uttar Pradesh FDA on 2 dozen packets from a single plant showed lead concentration of 17.2 parts per million (ppm), nearly seven times the permissible limit and high levels of added monosodium glutamate (MSG), a taste enhancer.
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The Haridwar FDA last week issued a summons to Dixit, once the darling of Indian filmgoers who now asks health-conscious moms to serve Maggi Oats noodles for breakfast. And on Tuesday, a district court in Bihar issued orders to file an FIR against Maggi’s brand ambassadors.
But why on earth are brand ambassadors liable for the product itself?
While one suspects that these notices are no more than a desire to either a) at best, get bragging rights for some mid-level sarkaari babu about how he/she bullied some of Bollywood’s biggest names and b) at worst, get a photo and autograph from the poor actors who must present themselves.
I say no fault because a brand ambassador is not under any compulsion, legal or ethical, to make sure that every single batch that the company produces is perfect in every single way. Mind you, I am talking here only of large brands by reputable companies, not your locally-produced cheap imitation.
Hell, even the Prevention of Food Adulteration (PFA) Act, 1954, said that up to 5 pieces of rodent feces and hair were permissible in each kilo of wheat, maize, jowar, bajra, rice, and masoor, urad, moong, chana and arhar pulses, a glaring health hazard that was only removed in 2001 after a public interest litigation. In other words, it took the government 54 years and a court case to get rid of rat shit in your most basic food items. But I don’t recall any politician who extolled the PDS system being pulled up for it.
For one, it is the government’s job to make sure that a food product is safe to consume (which is not to say that Nestle India should be let off the hook, if the samples are indeed contaminated at those levels). But clearly, the UP FDA had not been doing their job – lead levels in a product don’t jump overnight to seven times their permissible limit – and lead typically comes from our water supply.
Wall paint, too, is a major source of lead contamination, according to research from the Centre for Science and Environment. And according to research from the Quality Council of India, a government body, 33% of over 370 samples of water from the top 26 cities of India tested positive for harmful content of lead. Ever heard of any minister for water resources being pulled up for it?
How, then, can Bachchan or Dixit or Zinta be held responsible for a faulty batch of Maggi made in UP? If someone detects a higher level of petroleum jelly in say, Lux soap, should all heroines who endorse it or have ever done so, be hauled into court? That would be quite the beauty pageant, if you are familiar with that brand’s ads. If multiple car accidents take place because of a faulty design in, say, braking, is the celebrity endorsing the car supposed to have studied the product from an automobile engineering perspective?
Celebrities are invited to promote a brand for many reasons – a fit with the product, big name visibility, establishment of trust, and most often, the sex appeal factor. They are told about the product, how it sits with their profile, and benefits for both sides, usually accompanied by a nice sum of money for the endorser. But they can’t be held responsible for manufacturing errors.
Certainly, celebrities have an ethical and moral responsibility not to endorse products that are detrimental to the public good, given their outsize power to influence people. For example, you won’t find any film actors in a (surrogate) cigarette ad though some have done it for alcohol and many have done it for gutka.
Kangana Ranaut has won herself plaudits for refusing to do any ads for so-called ‘fairness’, or skin whitening, creams on the grounds that it was a clearly racist and morally questionable product.
In the Maggi case, the smart thing to do would have been to close the Maggi plant, test a few other samples from the plant and others, and recall the offending batches, even penalise the company.
But punishing brand ambassadors shows that the government is only interested in going after the low hanging fruit – in this case, hapless celebrities who are predictably clueless about the storm that has hit them – in order to make a spectacle of it and divert from the real causes of high lead content in food products. I will not even go into the MSG issue, health concerns about which have absolutely no scientific basis.
And once we move past the idiocy of summoning the brand ambassador for a fault in the product, we are presented with a more serious problem because, let’s face it, if we really want to prosecute every public figure for “misleading advertising”, shouldn’t we start with our politicians?