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Maggi Mess: India’s Food Safety Laws Are a Complete Sham

‘Clean chit’ by 3 govt labs but banned in 4 states. Just why is there so much discrepancy in the Maggi results?    

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The matter that should get us all agitated is the inadequacy of our laws and enforcement agencies to cope with the challenge affecting our everyday lives (Photo: Reuters)

As the question mark over Maggi gets bigger and bigger, the crisis highlights the grim issue of food safety laws and its implementation in India.

The packet of Maggi noodles comes with an FSSAI (Food Safety and Standards Authority of India) logo which is meant to guarantee International Food Safety standards and hygiene, but we now know that the logo means nothing.

Another baffling aspect is the discrepancy in the test results coming from various states. How can Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Gujarat and Uttarakhand find Maggi unsafe while Goa, Maharashtra and Chandigarh give it a clean chit?

The Business of Testing

The Food Safety & Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), the country’s apex food regulator, is awaiting test results for lead content in Maggi (Photo: iStock)
The Food Safety & Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), the country’s apex food regulator, is awaiting test results for lead content in Maggi (Photo: iStock)

What is happening here is that all the 10 Indian states which are carrying out tests on Maggi are taking different samples of different batches.

The Uttar Pradesh FDA, which was the first to detect high levels of lead and MSG in Maggi, took samples from the batch which expired in November last year. Now since the same sample is no longer in the market, states are picking up raw material of different batches from various cities and hence the opposing test results.

But in the face of a health crisis why can’t samples be tested in one of the Central laboratories of the government? The answer is complex.

Health is a state subject in India. So FSSAI orders the various State FDA’s to carry out the tests. Logistically also it will be impossible for ONE lab to carry out the tests from samples of all states. Procuring raw material for a food test on this scale is a task. You don’t randomly pick up packets from one store. Samples of different dates from various stores in different cities are collected and then put under the microscope.
– Amit Khurana, Head, Food Division, Centre For Science and Environment

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Why Not Test Other Junk Foods as Well?

Is only Maggi unsafe? What about the other junk foods you munch? (Photo: PTI)
Is only Maggi unsafe? What about the other junk foods you munch? (Photo: PTI)

Given that labelling laws are weak and full of loopholes in India, multinational food manufacturers are known to adopt dodgy labelling practices.

MSG is one of the worst food additives in the world and was not mentioned in the list of ingredients in Maggi. But it is used in the cooking of most Chinese cuisines. So why hasn’t FSSAI already started testing the popular Chings brand of noodles, their range of Chinese masalas, Wai Wai and other cup noodles flooding the market?

Two years back, Centre for Science and Environment found the presence of trans fats in Top Ramen and Haldiram bhujiya though they advertise these products to be trans fat free. Why has no action been taken yet? They also found high levels of antibiotics in popular brands of honey but not high enough to wake up the FSSAI.

FSSAI in its defence says they are extremely short staffed and low on infrastructure. An officer on the condition of anonymity told The Quint that their Kolkata wing does not have a single food inspector since 3 years and all 7 posts are lying vacant. More over, the Central laboratory in Mumbai has not updated its equipment since 2008!

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Food Recalls in the West

With the West eating more packed food than ever, food safety is a big issue. However, stringent food and labelling laws in the US, UK and other European countries ensure a smoother functioning.

Like India, the US FDA has various arms under it to look into food safety at the state and central level. It works with private industry players and consumer watchdogs to carry out the testing of a “suspicious” food item. Since the laws and implementation are strong, lab infrastructure advanced, and protocols for food recalls foolproof, the moment a product is found unsafe, all wings of the FDA get streamlined to recall the batch.

In India, even if the FSSAI imposes a national ban on Maggi, the recall will be challenging since the food distribution mechanism has its own limitation. The manpower-strapped FSSAI will find it very tough to ensure that your local kirana wala is not hoarding the nation’s favourite snack!

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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