The Maggi Mess: Two-Minute Flash in the Pan or Wake Up Call?

Is the Maggi controversy a mere storm in a teacup? Are Governments blowing it out of proportion?

We don’t agree. We think it is important to hold corporations (MNCs and Indian ones too) accountable to stringent food safety norms. But it is true that the substantive points are in danger of being drowned out in the cacophony of jingoistic rhetoric over the Maggi issue.

Some argue that it is unfair and unbalanced to blame Maggi for excess lead in its product – because the main source of that lead is ground water in India, which would also find its way into agricultural products in normal Indian diets. Pepsi and Coke had made a similar argument when the CSE study found these drinks to have dangerous levels of pesticides. It is true that vegetables and grains in India have been found to have excessive traces of lead and other poisonous materials. But Maggi (or Pepsi or Coke) cannot hide behind that argument, for many reasons.

Why Maggi Can’t Shrug Off Responsibility

First, Maggi (Nestle) simply cannot say that Indians cannot demand global food safety standards because Indians are anyway exposed to unsafe food and water.

Second, we can’t make a lazy comparison between, say, Nestle that makes and markets Maggi, and Indian farmers who grow wheat or vegetables that may also contain dangerous traces of lead. Nestle, unlike the farmers, is marketing a secondary product that has undergone processing. It is an MNC with vast resources. It is duty bound to spend on processing technology to clean the ground water it uses if the same contains unsafe quantities of lead, and to test its products before it sells them. Nestle, instead, spent a mere 19 crore on quality testing and 445 crore on advertising ( Advertising that falsely claims its product is not only harmless but ‘healthy’! Its priorities are clear.

What about the lead and other toxins in our regular home-cooked food: our vegetables and grains and pulses? Here, it is clear that the buck stops squarely with the Government. It is the State’s job to bring down pollution levels in water, clean sources of water, rid the soil of toxins and pesticides, and monitor primary foods for toxin levels. The very fact that Governments undertake high-profile projects to clean up the Ganga or Yamuna is a tacit admission that it is indeed their job to clean up water sources. This recognition must be taken to its logical conclusion, and the Government has to take responsibility to check the toxin levels in our regular food, which is indeed of dangerous levels. Incidentally, lead from painted idols immersed in lakes and rivers every year is a huge source of lead in water; is the Modi Government, (whose Defence Minister recently waxed racist and batted for ‘Make in India’ by claiming that China-made Ganesha idols have ‘narrow eyes’ that he felt were un-Indian) willing to take up this issue?

This, however, does not take Maggi (or other processed products, including soft drinks and packaged water, off the hook). Nestle’s record on food safety and human rights is, incidentally, abysmal. In 2013, Nestle CEO Peter Brabeck notoriously mocked at activists for ‘banging on’ with the ‘extreme’ view that ‘water is a human right’. Water, he said, should be priced and privatized. ( This statement is of course shockingly callous and a good example of corporate greed. Nestle is notorious for depleting ground water resources and selling expensive bottled water in poor countries, where they claim their water is a ‘healthy’ alternative. When drought was declared in California, the emergency restrictions on water use did not apply to the Nestle bottling plant in the state.

In the 1970s, Nestle faced international boycott protests for its brazen attempts to advertise its baby food products as a superior substitute for breast milk in Asia, Africa and Latin America, thereby contributing to malnutrition and diarrhea deaths among babies. Today, Nestle contributes to unhealthy diets of children in India and elsewhere, by marketing products like Maggi as part of the ‘healthy’ food basket.

Maggi is unhealthy, even if it did not contain added MSG and dangerous levels of lead. Why does the Indian Government allow any noodle brands or, for that matter, any instant or processed foods, to advertise themselves as ‘healthy’? Fresh raw vegetables and fruit are practically the only ‘instant’ foods that can be called ‘healthy.’ Highly processed foods simply cannot be healthy, it is whole foods with minimum processing, that are healthy. Maggi and other noodles, made primarily of maida – the worst possible form of processed wheat – are just plain unhealthy. Food safety regulators ought to ensure that their labels are accurate, and that they are prevented from claiming ‘health’ benefits for unhealthy junk foods.

How Corporations Infiltrate Indian Regulatory Bodies to ‘Make in India’

Much of the media attention in the Maggi case has been to harangue the ‘brand ambassadors’ – the actors or models who feature in Maggi advertisements. Few have asked what the Food Safety Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) was doing for the past three decades, when Maggi advertisements targeted kids and parents, claiming it was safe, healthy and nutritious?

The Maggi story is just a small instance of the falsehoods and corruption that are very much part of how corporations like Nestle ‘Make in India’ and other countries of the global South.

One clue as to why the FSSAI has said and done nothing to hold Maggi (and other, similar products) accountable all these years, is the dirty secret that the FSSAI has had agents of corporations like Nestle, Pepsi and Coke on its regulatory panels. In 2011, the Indian Supreme Court, during a hearing of the Coca-Cola case, rapped the FSSAI on the knuckles for having representatives of Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Nestle and other soft-drink/bottled water manufacturers on its panels. Pointing out that that section 13 of the FSS Act stipulates that only independent scientific experts can be appointed on such a panel, the SC Bench told the FSSAI, “We are sorry to say that the panel does not consist of independent persons. What kind of recommendations do you expect from the panel?" It asked: “The (cola companies) are selling everything they want. You (FSSAI) have not stopped anyone... For more than 18 months, you are sitting quiet on that (issue). What is the reason for that?"

The icing on the cake (or the MSG in the noodles, if you like), is that Nestle India Chairman A Helio Waszyk and Managing Director Etienne Benet wrote a letter to shareholders, published in the latest annual report of the company, saying that India was "severely impacted by malnutrition," and that Nestle India was "constantly researching and observing the role that food plays in the lives of consumers across the income pyramid….Our vision and ambition is to be the recognised leader of Nutrition, Health and Wellness in India….to develop products that enable consumers to lead better lives and help them to improve nutrition in their daily diets.”

So Nestle claims it is not creating an Indian market for junk food; it is engaged in the noble project of combating malnutrition in India! This would be a joke - if the Indian food safety regulators had not allowed them to get away with these claims. The truth is, it is far from a joke, it is fast becoming an ugly reality. Poor households cannot easily afford vegetables, pulses, eggs, milk. Maggi markets itself quite deliberately as a cheap, ‘nutritious’ food. Increasingly, poor urban (and a growing number of rural) households opt for Maggi because it is relatively cheap. All over the world, it is the poor who are condemned to consume junk food, while the more privileged have access to information as well as spending power to choose nutritious food.

Misogynist Garnish

In a discussion on nutrition and food, it could not be long before someone chose to blame women for malnutrition. And in India, it is no surprise that the medal for misogyny goes, once again, to the BJP. Its MLA from Madhya Pradesh, Usha Thakur, said that mothers who were too lazy to make parathas and halwa were responsible for kids’ addiction to Maggi. Of course, she has displayed her own nutritional ignorance by imagining that oil/ghee laden parathas and halwa are ‘healthy’. But what is really revealing is that she (backed by her vocal supporters including a horde of twitter tolls led by the inimitable Madhu Kishwar) sees no problem in holding that cooking is ‘women’s work’, and shaming women for failing in that work.

Ms Thakur, during a debate on ABP News, said that it was mothers’ duty to feed kids a diet that is ‘in keeping with Indian values.’ Thereby hangs an interesting tale. What is a diet that is ‘in keeping with Indian values’? The BJP Government in Ms Thakur’s state has discontinued eggs in the mid-day meals provided by the Government in anganwadi child care centres and schools. India has worse rates of child mortality and malnutrition than sub-Saharan Africa, and Madhya Pradesh is no exception to the rest of India. Experience has shown that the vast majority of children who depend on the mid-day meals for better nutrition, relish eggs. Food taboos against eggs are limited to small minority of mostly upper caste Indians. Yet, the Madhya Pradesh Government decrees that eggs must be kept out of mid-day meals because it may offend this minority. It is apparent from the Madhya Pradesh Government’s rejection of eggs and the Maharashtra Government’s ban on beef, that the BJP’s notion of an ‘Indian values’ diet, is the imposition of the diet of the upper caste minority on everyone else. And Ms Thakur’s remarks further remind us that in addition to bigotry and casteism, misogyny too has always been at the core of the BJP’s and RSS’ notion of ‘Indian values.’ The Prime Minister has just displayed the same, when he made a global laughing stock of himself by saying that the Bangladeshi Prime Minister was a strong leader against terrorism ‘despite being a woman.’

Jingoist Posturing Isn’t the Answer

Playing the patriot card against Maggi, Baba Ramdev (one of the most successful in India’s Godman business) has promised to market a “healthy alternative Maggi for children.”

It is dangerous to link food safety standards with patriotic jingoism. Ayurveda medicine products, for instance, are often high in lead, arsenic and other toxins. Will we be branded unpatriotic for asking whether Ramdev’s medicines and other Ayurveda products are tested for toxins? What are the testing standards followed for these products? Where is the transparency in testing procedures and results? Should our Government, in the wake of the Maggi mess, not be reflecting on the failure of our testing and food safety standards, and correcting these, not just with respect to Maggi and MNCs but with respect to Indian companies too? Ramdev’s Patanjali and Divya Pharmacy are just as much profit-seeking corporations as is Nestle. These and other Indian companies cannot be allowed to benefit from lax and corrupt food safety regulations, any more than MNCs can.

Just banning Maggi and other noodles as an exercise in patriotic posturing, or paving the way for Ramdev-brand rather than Ramen noodles, is unacceptable. The Maggi matter should not be a two-minute flash in the pan, but a wake-up call. We should demand a good hard look at the functioning of the FSSAI; thorough overhaul of food safety, labeling and food advertising standards; and urgent Government measures not only to hold companies strictly accountable to these standards but to take responsibility for cleaning up ground water and soil. And above all, the Government should stop trying to subvert and scale back the Food Security Act, and should take full responsibility for ensuring nutritious and adequate food rations for every Indian. This would go a long way to ensuring that needy households don’t feed their kids empty calories in the shape of Maggi, instead of wholesome and nutritious meals.

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