Will it make our food safer and address real issues?
There is more manufactured hysteria around Maggi noodles than we have ever had when scores of people, including children, have died of poisoning due to adulterated sweets during Diwali, or adulterated liquor. The excess lead in the noodles has not killed anybody. Yet, entire cities are being emptied of Maggie noodles.
A court in Muzaffarpur (Bihar) has decided that real culprit is not Nestlé, but the three film-stars who endorsed Maggi—Amitabh Bachchan, Madhuri Dixit and Preity Zinta (12 years ago). A case is registered against them for misleading people. Not to be left behind, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has asked Madhuri Dixit to explain the nutritional content in Maggi noodles in 15 days.
Nothing shows up India as a semi-literate banana republic than this manufactured mischief. Before discussing this further, let me make it clear that I hold no brief for Maggi noodles or Nestlé. What we eat is often unhealthy processed food, which is bad for our health. Large food companies lobby to keep Bureau of Industrial Standards (BIS) norms vague enough to allow them to walk the thin line between truth and falsehood. Corrupt or careless government officials ensure that we eat dozens of chemical additives such as preservatives, colouring agents, emulsifiers, stabilisers, gelling agents, thickeners, flavour enhancers (like mono sodium glutamate, which is not banned in the US), sequestering and buffering agents and sweeteners. All these make our processed food tasty and give it a long shelf-life.
Government officials also maintain a deafening silence about aflatoxins in milk, growth hormones injected into livestock, excessive use of pesticides and fertilisers across India. Do you know that even breast milk was found to contain urea?
Have you ever seen the FDA go after possible carcinogens such as butylated hydroxyanisole (E320) and potassium bromate which are present in breakfast cereal and our daily bread made by top brands? Or a dangerous dye, like rhodamine-B, that gives candyfloss its fluorescent pink colour? Or even major brands of lipstick which are repeatedly found to be high in lead content all over the world? Yes, we are talking about names like L’Oreal, Christian Dior, Lakmé and Maybelline.
The FSSAI’s (Food Safety Standards Authority of India) over-the-top reaction to the finding of excess lead in Maggi noodles seems to suggest that the multinational company is deliberately trying to destroy India with lead poisoning. So let’s get some perspective on this issue.
All over the world, when things can go wrong, it leads to recall of food products, medicines or even automobiles. Regulators inspect and isolate the problem; get defective, contaminated, sub-standard products off the shop shelves; and ensure corrective action and penalty. Whipping up a nationwide hysteria smacks of regulatory terrorism rather than serious action.
We are happy the government is concerned about our health, but we would like to see it in the form of clear policies, labelling, inspection and even-handed, continuous action against dangerous additives rather than selective madness.
Finally, if the courts plan to go after brand ambassadors, how about docking regulators first? Moneylife has argued since inception that celebrity endorsements cause maximum damage when used to hawk financial products such as insurance. Why is the insurance regulator allowing it, when the capital market regulator has banned celebrity endorsements for 25 years?