The nationwide action initiated against Maggi noodles may seem like a classic case of too little, too late, but it has given us a reason to mull over the state of the food we eat and the conditions in which they are produced.
The central issue isn't Maggi, which has had a free run for more than 32 years, or its manufacturer, Nestle , nor is it Amitabh Bachchan or Madhuri Dixit (can we have no news story in this country without a 'celebrity angle'?).
The matter that should get us all agitated is the inadequacy of our laws and of our enforcement agencies to cope with a monumental challenge affecting our everyday lives. In the past, I have written about the disproportionate interest shown by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) to block the import of food items and alcoholic beverages, citing at time ludicrous labelling issues. If it had invested the same effort in ensuring that domestic players - from multinational companies and local manufacturers to restaurants, slaughterhouses and street food vendors -followed international hygiene standards and food quality norms, we wouldn't have a situation where each packet of the now-condemned Maggi comes with an FSSAI logo, which is supposed to guarantee that it is safe for consumption.
The FSSAI's limp defence is that it has neither the required number of trained personnel, nor an adequate spread of laboratories to carry out its vast mandate, but it has been around for too long and has too little to show for itself, for this argument to work in its favour. Maggi, to use the word play that has now become endemic, may be in a soup, but it doesn't mean that other food products flooding the market are safe for human consumption (and of course, now we know that the FSSAI logo doesn't guarantee anything).
For years, experts have been raising the red flag against our food labelling laws and NGOs such as the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) have been coming out with damning evidence against some of the popular food brands, but no one has cared to even look into the findings. The CSE has established without a degree of doubt that manufacturers of food products have been paying only lip service to the limits set by the law on trans fats, which are acknowledged to be among the major causes of blocked arteries and heart attacks.
A couple of years back, the CSE subjected some of the popular packaged food labels to lab tests and reported the findings in a publication targeted at schoolchildren, Junk Food Busted. "Haldiram Aloo Bhujia and Top Ramen instant noodles claim to be trans fats-free. But are they really?" the CSE asked in this publication. FSSAI rules lay down that a product can claim to be trans fats-free if it contains less than 0.2 gm of these deadly substances per serving, but the CSE study found that a packet of Top Ramen instant noodles has 0.6 gm of trans fats and 100 gm of Haldiram Aloo Bhujia has 2.5 gm of trans fats.
The CSE report also pointed out: "Products like Lay's American Style Cream & Onion claim that they have 'zero' trans fats in 100 gm of their products. The CSE study, however, found 0.9 gm of trans fats in 100 gm of chips. Bingo Oye Pudina chips is another such product." And this is just one of thousands of violations that our "food business operators, or FBOs", as the FSSAI likes to call them, commit daily. If international food manufacturers engage in dodgy labelling practices, can we blame the street food vendor who keeps reusing the same oil, releasing the cancer-causing chemicals in the cooking medium?
Our universe of FBOs, barring maybe the starred hotels and airline kitchens, is an unregulated mass that the FSSAI has neither the muscle, nor the will to control. We can only hope that the outrage over Maggi will soup up a sustained national campaign against all those who've reduced our food laws into an unappetising mess.
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