After Maggi blows over, will food get any safer?
Given the manner in which various state governments have banned the sale of Maggi 2-minute noodles, the army has issued an advisory against it to its soldiers, and some large supermarkets have pulled the product off their shelves, you would think the Maggi noodles’ lead and MSG levels was the biggest food safety crisis India has ever had. So much so that, while the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has yet to come out with its report, the central government has taken the unprecedented step of complaining to the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (NCDRC) using Section 12(1)(d) of the Consumer Protection Act—this is the first time this section, which empowers the government to file a complaint as a representative of the people, has ever been used. Though the FSSAI has yet to come to a conclusion, and there are differing reports from various states—while Delhi, Uttarakhand and Gujarat claim Maggi has lead levels beyond permissible levels, Goa, Maharashtra and Kerala’s tests find no problem—consumer affairs minister Ram Vilas Paswan has said “it is about selling substandard products and making false claims in advertisements, thereby misleading consumers”.
While Nestle needs to be punished harshly if its products are found to be failing standards, the controversy throws up issues that show up India’s food safety regulations in very poor light. For one, what kind of testing norms are in place if they throw up wildly different results across the country? And how has Maggi been selling in the country for so many decades without being caught till now? And, more important, how many more such cases are there in the shadows? There have been reports of excessive lead in paints, pesticides in milk, antibiotics in poultry … the list is a long one. But the most damming evidence comes from the FSSAI’s annual report. The apex food safety organisation had a budget of R56 crore—the original approval was for R85 crore—of which a princely R9.8 crore was spent on salaries in FY14; not surprisingly, the annual report for FY14 says ‘enforcement of the FSS Act is difficult in the absence of a network of accredited food testing laboratories’. There are a total of 82 accredited laboratories across the country—of which, a mere 5 test the food in all of eastern India. Perhaps why, in a country the size of India, FSSAI managed to examine just 64,593 samples in FY12, found 8,247 to be ‘non-conforming’, launched 6,845 prosecutions and got just 764 convictions. By FY15, the number of samples was down to 49,290—to be fair, reports had not been got from all states—the number of non-conforming samples was up to 8,469, as was the number of convictions at 2,701. The penalties, involved, were under R7 crore, telling you just how ineffective the FSSAI is. None of this takes away from Nestle’s culpability in case the final tests confirm the UP FDA’s fears, but it is difficult to shrug off the feeling that the Maggi controversy is a bit of overkill, an attempt to show up the country’s food safety system as robust when it is anything but that.