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Maggi, Lead and Ajinomoto

Nestle confidently says there are no stated levels of MSG in India and since it does not add any artificial glutamate in Maggi, it is not bound to mention the chemical on the packets.

twitter-logoPB Jayakumar | May 29, 2015 | Updated 10:50 IST

PB Jayakumar, senior editor, Business Today
"My job is to protect the health of US citizens and we will not allow sale of any food or drug item that compromises on the quality standards we prescribe whether it be from India or any other country," Michael R. Taylor, the US Food and Drug Administration (USFDA)'s Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine told Business Today in March after inspecting many food processing companies in India.

Can India's food regulator YS Malik, CEO, Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), say this with the same confidence of Taylor?

It is interesting to probe this in the wake of the 'Maggi controversy'.

Reportedly, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the Uttar Pradesh government says its sample-testing recently revealed that Swiss multinational Nestle's Indian arm Nestle India's flagship brand 'Maggi' noodles contained more than the 'permissible' amounts of lead and monosodium glutamate (MSG). Nestle claims it has not done anything against the laws prescribed by the Indian authorities.

For many, it is hard to believe Nestle-which has enough resources for ensuring the best quality for its products and services-will compromise on such a sensitive food item, its main revenue earner in India and a product consumed mostly by millions of children. For many anti-multinationals, especially on social media, it is another glaring example of how multinationals make huge profits, while compromising on the health of our people and rules of the land.  

In 2004, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) had published an article saying India's Ayurvedic herbal medicine product (HMPs) contained high levels of lead, mercury, and arsenic, all harmful to health. Following this, many drug regulators banned Indian Ayurvedic products, despite the fact that India's Ayurveda is over 5,000 years old and our forefathers knew the science to turn even toxic metals into medicines.

Here the story and issue is different. Nestle confidently says there are no stated levels of MSG in India and since it does not add any artificial glutamate in Maggi, it is not bound to mention the chemical on the packets.  

MSG is a popular taste enhancer, especially in Chinese, Korean and Japanese foods. It is popularly known in India for a Japanese company's brand, Ajinomoto. Nestle says the contamination could be due to presence of MSG naturally in many foods, like tomatoes, parmesan, potatoes, mushrooms and other vegetables and fruits.

But Nestle may not be able to sell Maggi in the US like the way they sell it in India.

"The Food and Drug Administration (US) has classified MSG as a food ingredient that's 'generally recognised as safe,' but its use remains controversial. For this reason, when MSG is added to food, the FDA requires that it be listed on the label", says a Mayo clinic (one of the world's best cancer and disease research centre in the US) note on MSG. The adverse reactions to foods containing MSG, known as 'MSG symptom complex', include headache, flushing, sweating, facial pressure or tightness, numbness, tingling or burning in the face, neck and other areas, heart palpitations, chest pain, nausea, weakness etc. However, researchers have found no definitive evidence of a link between MSG and these symptoms, says the Mayo note.

Then how does Nestle confidently say there are no 'stated levels of MSG in India'?

Here is the key. Malik's FSSAI approved the 'Standards for Food Additives in Foods' following its meeting on January 16, 2015, among many other food standards like that for milk and milk products. But these are yet to be framed as rules since further discussions and amendments to the Act are required. The regulator had issued guidelines in 2011 including the Food Safety and Standards (Food Products Standards and Food Additives) Regulations, 2011 and the Food Safety and Standards (Contaminants, Toxins and Residues) 2011. India formulated the rules for food only in 2006 with the Food Safety and Standards Act, which consolidates various acts and orders, governed by various ministries and departments. FSSAI's job is to lay down science based standards for food and to regulate the sector.  

"FSSAI is continuously striving to expand and update the food standards. However, as you are all aware, setting of science-based standards for food articles is a time-consuming and continuous process", says Malik in a recent internal newsletter.

Taylor's confidence stems from the fact that the US FDA is a huge organisation, employing over 8,000 people at least with well-defined rules, technology and systems developed and enacted over so many decades. As against this, the toddler FSSAI has a handful of employees spread over its head office and eight regional offices. It is up to the states to enforce regulations in the sector. Regular surveillance, monitoring and sampling of food products is being undertaken by states.

In some states like Maharashtra and Gujarat, food and drug is under one department. In other states, it comes under the health department or under food and civil supplies or under some other ministry and officials. In almost all states, the ground realities are the same as in the past, despite a central regulator and rules in place. Manpower is a big issue in most states. And their task is also herculean. Till February, FSSAI granted 18,736 central licenses, states and the union territories granted 5,50,808 licenses. There is also a registered base of 23,73,484 Food Business Operators (FBOs) in the food sector. It is practically impossible to collect samples and monitor all these units on a regular basis, even with thousands of officials.

Our testing facilities infrastructure is also pathetic. There are only 166 approved labs, including 72 in public sector, that are capable of testing samples collected from the near 24 lakh FBOs. Of this, the NABL (National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories) labs are less than 90 and there are some 12 referral labs of repute. But their workload is huge.

The Central food Lab in Kolkata caters to six states. The CFTRI Mysore covers seven states and union territories. The State Public Health Lab, Pune, caters to ten states and UTs, the Food Research and Standardization Laboratory in Ghaziabad also caters to seven states and UTs. Capability wise, the four labs under the Spices Board can take care of spices, the Indian Institute of Horticultural Research (IIHR) in Bangalore is probably the only, and the best competent lab, to test pesticide residue in fresh and processed food. Pesticide residue, heavy metals, microbial contamination, food additives etc can be tested at Indian Institute of Vegetable Research at Varanasi. Milk and milk products have to go to Centre for Analysis and Learning in Livestock Food (CALF) in Anand, Gujarat. Similarly, IICT Hyderabad can only authentically test fat and oils. So, a sample collected today may be tested after many years!

No wonder YS Malik says we have to go miles, while Michael R. Taylor says 'we will not allow selling sub-standard food products'.

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