In India, Oodles of Trouble For Maggi Noodles

By Masuma Parveen
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150611-IN-maggi-620 A shopkeeper pulls packets of Maggi instant noodles from shelves in Siliguri, India, June 5, 2015.

For more than three decades Indians have turned to Maggi instant noodles as a tasty and easy source of nourishment.

The two-minute noodles have come to be dubbed "India's third staple" after rice and lentils, since the yellow and red packets first hit shelves of Indian markets in 1983. The Maggi brand last year accounted for 63 percent of the country’s instant noodle market, valued at U.S. $900 million, according to Indian media reports.

“Irrespective of age, gender and class, it succeeded in capturing our popular imagination as an eternal timesaver,” Sree Deep, a sociologist at Shiv Nadar University, told BenarNews.

“Fire and a few minutes were all that one needed to realize the open recipe, which soon became the opium for masses. It offered taste to the hard-pressed-for-time generation without much cost and effort and stood the test of time.”

For the time being, however, Maggi noodles are being pulled from market shelves across India.

A food safety scare and an Indian governmental ban imposed last week on the Maggi noodle line, produced by Nestlé’s Indian subsidiary, have cast a shadow over the Swiss multinational’s operations in India. As many as 5,000 people work for the company in India.

The recall followed allegations by food safety regulators in India of the product being tainted with lead.

Nestlé maintains that the noodles are safe to eat. In a statement on Thursday, the Swiss food group said it was challenging the ban in court.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is testing samples of Maggi, Reuters quoted a spokeswoman for the Swiss food group as saying Thursday.


Last month, food safety regulators in Uttar Pradesh said they found that Maggi noodles contained up to 17 times more lead than is considered safe, as well as monosodium glutamate (MSG).

Soon after, most other states conducted independent tests and the result was not encouraging for Maggi enthusiasts.  

Some of India's biggest retailers like Future Group, Big Bazaar, Easyday and Nilgiris have stopped selling the product after the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) ordered Nestlé India to immediately withdraw all nine varieties of Maggi noodles from the market, calling them “unsafe and hazardous” for human consumption.

In addition, the authority asked Nestlé to “stop further production, processing, import, distribution and sale of the said product with immediate effect.”

MSG is not particularly harmful, if obtained from natural sources, according to Kolkata-based general physician Dr. Partha Roy.

“However, if it is chemically produced and the contaminating factor is higher, then it can be harmful,” he told BenarNews.

Lead, on the other hand, is highly harmful, especially for children, he warned.

“It can cause heart diseases, kidney problems and other related health hazards,” Roy said.

A. Chakraborty, a senior marketing manager at Spencer's, a leading retail chain, agreed.

India still lacks a regulatory body as strong as the FDA, and it is somewhat difficult to trust any of the brands on the shelves, he told BenarNews.

Bollywood glitz

A lot of money is riding on Maggi noodles.

Advertising has played a big role in the brand’s popularity.

In 2014, Nestlé poured $70 million into marketing campaigns around the brand, which has received endorsements from Bollywood superstars like Amitabh Bachchan, Madhuri Dixit and Preity Zinta, according to Indian media reports.

"The Indian market is too important for the brand to miss out on and they will try hard to win it back. If they can clarify their stand, people are sure to forgive and forget," ad guru Rangan Chakravarty told BenarNews.

Nestlé responds

The multinational says it does not add artificial MSG in any of its products and that it maintains strict food safety and quality control standards.

“We have carried out extensive tests of our Maggi noodles in India in addition to our regular testing of the finished product and raw materials, which is why we are saying the products are safe for consumption,” according to a statement from Nestlé.

“Nestlé India has tested around 1,000 batches of Maggi noodles in our own laboratories and also asked an independent lab to test an additional 600 product batches. These tests covered batches totaling 125 million or 12.5 Crore packets of noodles in total,” it added.

“These tests found that levels of lead in the products were within the food safety limits specified by the Indian authorities.”


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