I heard the first rumblings about the Nestlé Maggi noodle issue in India early in June. I had no idea at that time the scale of the food recall that was going to unfold. Just to show the scale of this recall I’ll give a few numbers. More than 400 million packets of noodles have to be destroyed. These will be carried by a convoy of more than 2,500 lorries to incineration plants and - at a cost estimated at over £30m.
Now to take a few steps back to try to understand what has happened, what went wrong. A one-off customer complaint about insect contamination of a Nestlé milk-based product seemed to lead to other Nestlé products coming under the testing spotlight. This resulted in an Indian government laboratory reporting that tests on a batch of 13 samples of Maggi noodles, a famous brand in India, showed extremely high levels of lead - in fact, levels well in excess of the legal limits in India. A further twist came when additional tests showed the chemical flavour enhancer monosodium glutamate (MSG was also present, though it wasn’t listed as an ingredient. The Indian authorities ordered state-run grocery stores to stop selling the product and initiated a country-wide product recall.
Nestlé’s reaction to the crisis was fairly typical for a large multinational with a global brand to protect. It immediately organised thousands of tests of its noodles to be undertaken in their own and other accredited laboratories. Results showed not one case of a lead limit violation. In relation to the MSG issue, Nestlé stated publicly that it did not use MSG, but did use glutamate derived from groundnut protein, onion powder and wheat flour, adding that the Indian labs had misidentified glutamate as being MSG.
So we have a total and utter difference in testing results between the Indian state labs and a range of accredited commercial labs. So who is right and who is wrong? Extremely difficult to know, but in my opinion the Maggi noodles saga smells - and the odour is not a pleasant one. I have collaborated with the Nestlé food safety group for a long time and I know how professional they are. They are tasked with protecting the consumers of all Nestlé products as well as the reputation of a global brand and are extremely diligent in what they do. So can it be as simple as the Indian authorities covering up some dodgy testing? I doubt this and wonder if it is more to do with some high politics kicking in.
Strangely, the Indian authorities have also decided to recall Unilever’s Knorr noodles, despite stating there is no food safety issue at all. One can only wonder if some form of protectionism is going on here and if shelves will be restocked with Indian-owned brands.
If that’s the case, I wonder if the Indian government has thought through its strategy. The world’s second-largest population has just been exposed to the largest food recall in its history. I doubt there is any risk; the destruction of tonnes of perfectly safe food in a country with so many undernourished people is the scandal. The problems of food safety in India are enormous, with contamination and fraud rife in many sectors. Will more questions start to be asked by Indian consumers and have the authorities let the genie out of the food packet?
Chris Elliott is director of the Institute of Global Food Security at Queen’s University, Belfast