The recent controversy on safety concerns surrounding Maggi noodles — the popular instant noodle brands of the Swiss transnational company (TNC), Nestle – raises a number of issues that have not been explored in much of the media reports. The entire controversy erupted after a conscientious Food and Drug inspector in UP got samples of Maggi instant noodles tested for the presence of toxic and impermissible ingredients. The test results showed up the presence of lead at upto 7 times the permitted level and also a food additive called monosodium glutamate (also called ajinomoto), though the package insert said that no monosodium glutamate was added.
Many states followed suit and got samples of magi noodles tested and several samples again showed up the presence of high levels of lead. Many state governments banned the product and Nestle responded ‘temporarily withdrew’ the product from the market. Finally the Government has now ordered the ‘recall’ of the product across India. Nestle however continues to deny liability and continues to speak in different voices. It claims that the company’s own tests have shown that their product is ‘safe’ while it has also said that the lead could have come from ingredients that are used while manufacturing the product.
Image Courtesy: qz.com
It is impossible to conceive that several test results from different states can all be somehow wrong. So, clearly, at least a good proportion of Maggi noodles in the market have lead content that is way above permissible limits. Maggi noodles was the first brand of ‘instant’ noodles to be introduced in India (in the mid 1980s) and since then has become one of Nestle’s top selling products in the country. The ‘instant noodle’ market in India has grown by leaps and bounds – it is now a Rs.10,000 crore market, of which Maggi’s share is about 70%. Instant noodles have become the staple snack food (and in some cases a regular meal) for millions of Indian families – especially among the middle classes and a section of the poor. Roadside shacks sell Maggi all over the country and a whole generation of children has grown up on a regular diet of Maggi noodles. Nestle has ramped up its advertising blitz over the years and the focus of its advertisement has shifted from terming Maggi as an easy to make snack (the “two minute noodle” to claiming that it is a healthy product.
Maggi could have slow-poisoned an entire generation
The question people are now asking is how harmful is Maggi and how much have they (especially children) been harmed due to the toxic effects of lead in Maggi. There is no simple answer to this question. Lead is a known toxin and can have several harmful effects. Lead affects a number of systems in the body and is known to be toxic to the heart, bones, intestines, kidneys, and the reproductive and nervous systems. It also interferes with the development of the nervous system in children and can cause learning and behavior disorders. Here it must be understood that a single exposure to the amount of lead that would be contained in a packet of Maggi (as detected in some of the samples tested) is extremely unlikely to cause lasting harm. When consumed in small quantities lead accumulates in the body (especially in organs such as the heart, kidneys and liver) and the effects are felt due to long term exposure. So the effect of lead in a product would be felt over a period due to repeated and continuous exposure. We have no data that can tell us which batches of Maggi, over the years, have had high lead content and to what extent. It is thus impossible to gauge the actual exposure to lead in those who consume Maggi regularly. But given the serious potential effect of lead, it is quite possible that many consumers, especially children, have been adversely affected. As the symptoms of lead poisoning are non-specific and can be present due to other conditions – such as headache, abdominal pain, irritability, learning disorders, etc. – it is very difficult to correlate the harmful effects of lead with some of these symptoms.
The Maggi episode, however, highlights two issues. The first relates to the regulatory system in the country as regards food safety. There are repeated reports of food being contaminated by toxins – but usually the reports are generated when some agency, serendipitously, decides to test a sample. There is no regular mechanism for testing food products that are marketed. Thus, in the case of Maggi, we do not know whether the high lead content has persisted for years or even decades. We also do not know if other processed food products that we buy regularly also contain lead, or other harmful toxins. In all probability many (if not most) food products being sold in the market contain one or more toxins. If nothing else, the Maggi controversy should lead to a total revamp of food safety norms and regulations. These should include an overhaul of the entire machinery that is tasked with ensuring food safety – a significant addition to personnel, testing facilities and norms for regular testing of samples. Labeling requirements need to be changed so that they include information about the levels of potentially toxic products in all food products.
A second issue that has received almost no attention has regard to the source of lead in Maggi. Because lead is such a toxic substance, there are restrictions on its use all over the world. In a bygone era a significant portion of pipes used to supply domestic drinking water were made of lead. This is now not so in most countries and in India there are regulations that ban the use of lead pipes for supply of drinking water. Lead is found in paints and varnishes and many countries now restrict the use of lead in these products. However, in India, lead is not banned in paints and is a major source of contamination of water sources. Lead is also used as a stabilizer in pipes made of PVC (polyvinyl chloride) and again Indian standards do not ban such use. PVC pipes are a major source of contamination of drinking water with lead. Nestle cannot absolve itself of responsibility by claiming that the lead in Maggi came from sources that the company has no control over. Nestle knew that their product should not contain lead above a certain level and it was their responsibility to ensure that their manufacturing process was tailored to ensure compliance with regulatory standards. Clearly, Nestle never (or rarely) got its products tested and possibly did not know that they were poisoning young children with small doses of lead. Or worse still, they knew and chose to do nothing about it. On either count Nestle needs to be prosecuted for criminal liability.
Even without lead Maggi is bad for health
We turn now to a more fundamental issue. Nestle likes to project its products as ‘healthy’. Their slogan is “Taste Bhi, Health Bhi” – a slogan that is transmitted to our living rooms by glamorous paid mercenaries such as Amitabh Bacchan and Madhuri Dixit. So the real question is, how healthy is Maggi, even if it were not laced with toxins? The short answer is, like all ultra-processed foods Maggi is bad for health. 100 grams of Maggi contains over 400 claories and over 14 grams of fat. It contains high levels of salt and very small amounts natural fibre. So Maggi is a high fat, high calorie, low fibre product – in other words a product that can cause immense harm to health if consumed regularly. A high salt, high fat and high calorie diet increases the risk of heart disease and diabetes. A diet that is poor in natural fibres puts people at high risk of developing cancers of the digestive tract and of increased levels of cholesterol in the blood. Forget the smiling face of your favourite Bollywood superstar in the Maggi advertisement, they are selling a product that is known to be harmful to health over the long and medium term.
Interestingly, in 2008, Nestle was caught with its pants down when it mistakenly aired a commercial meant for Bangladeshi television on British TV. The advertisement made false claims that Nestle’s noodles “help to build strong muscles, bone and hair”. The British Advertising Standards Authority banned the commercial, saying that it was in violation of European Union consumer protection legislation, by which advertisers have to provide proof of health claims. In India in 2010 Nestle was made to withdraw TV commercials aired between April and June, by the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI). ASCI decreed that Nestle Maggi Ketchup’s claims of being healthy was misleading – Nestle’s commercial showed an obese and aged gentleman consuming unhealthy burgers with claims of “Make India Healthy.”
Not just Maggi, all ultra-processed food, in varying degrees, have similar characteristics – high salt, high sugar, high fat and low natural fibre. There are good reasons why this is so, though it is universally acknowledged that such a diet is harmful. This is where public health comes in conflict with commercial interests. All the above characteristics are necessary for two reasons that are critical to the commercial success of a ultra-processed food – they allow for increased shelf life of the product and they ensure that consumers get addicted to the product.
In 2013 New York Times journalist Michael Moss, a former Pulitzer prize recipient for investigative journalism, published a highly acclaimed book called “Salt Sugar Fat”. The book details how executives and food scientists at Coca-Cola, Kraft, Frito-Lay and Nestle make use of the fact that sugary, fatty and salty foods light up the same pleasure centres in our brains that cocaine does. The book explains that babies do not automatically like salt, but when children are continuously exposed to high salt foods such as potato chips, bacon, soup, ham, hot dogs, French fries and pizza, it creates cravings and makes them lifelong addicts. Moss’s investigations reveal that the goal of research, by food and beverage TNCs on sugar is to find the “bliss point,” the optimal amount of sweetener that causes pleasure. The bliss point is achieved through thousands of ‘taste tests’ and meticulous data collection in numerous corporate run laboratories employing thousands of scientists. Children accustomed to sugar will always want it, guaranteeing permanent customers of processed foods. Similarly, Moss explains that the high fat content of processed foods is a deliberate ploy of food transnational corporations (TNCs) as people adore the luscious “mouth-feel” of fat. A report by the UK Consumers Association claims that 7 out of the 15 breakfast cereals with the highest levels of sugar, fat and salt were Nestle products.
There are widespread concerns that an epidemic of Non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as heart diseases, cerebral strokes and diabetes, is sweeping the globe. Food and beverage transnational corporations are a major driver of this epidemic. The Brazilian nutritionist, Carlos Monteiro, argues that the policies and practices of transnational food and beverage corporations, most of whose products are ultra-processed and whose headquarters are almost invariably in the US and Europe, are now steadily displacing traditional food systems around the world. In high income countries these TNCs disproportionately target low-income groups, thus driving up obesity rates in the poor population. This has been clearly documented, for example, in the poor African American neighborhoods of American cities. With markets for processed foods and beverages starting to get saturated in high income countries, these TNCs are now increasingly targeting populations in Low and Middle Income countries, such as in India. For example, the sales of what Nestle calls its line of “popularly positioned products” saw annual growth rates of 25%, and the market for these products in Asia, Africa, and Latin America is now estimated to be approaching 90 billion US dollars.
Nestle – behind the health food façade
We turn now to Nestle, which piously claims that it is “committed to enhancing people’s lives by offering tastier and healthier food and beverage choices at all stages of life and at all times of the day”. Yet Nestle has been a constant in many global lists (for several decades) prepared by corporate watch groups, as one of the most prominent corporations that should be indicted for criminal offences.
It is a company that has been the subject of an international boycott for over 25 years – perhaps the longest standing boycott of a global corporation. It has been labeled by activist organisations as a “baby killer” for persistent unethical marketing of breast milk substitutes. Responding to global concerns about the unethical nature of marketing of breast milk substitutes, the WHO in 1981 formulated the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes. Nestle has been singled out, internationally, as the biggest violator of this code. In 2004, monitoring results from 69 countries showed up over 2,000 violations of the code, and Nestlé was found responsible for more violations than any other company.
Even apart from its ‘baby-killer’ reputation, Nestle’s list of corporate crimes is truly impressive. A 2010 documentary film titled “The Dark Side of Chocolate” revealed Nestle’s complicity in child slave labour in cocoa plantations in Ivory Coast. In the middle of the horrendous Ethiopian famine in 2002, Nestle slapped a highly inflated 6 million dollar claim on the government of Ethiopia as compensation for nationalization of the Ethiopian Livestock Development Company, in which Nestle had held shares. In the Serra da Mantiqueira region of Brazil, home to the “circuit of waters” park whose groundwater has a high mineral content and medicinal properties, over-pumping by Nestle (for its bottled water facility) has resulted in severe depletion of ground water and long-term environmental damage. As one of the four corporate giants dominating the coffee-roasting industry (along with Sara Lee, Kraft and Procter & Gamble) Nestle is, in some measure, responsible for the plight of millions of coffee farmers in poor countries who are paid a pittance for their produce and face economic ruin due to collapsing world prices. According to the UK based charity, Oxfam, coffee farmers are getting an average of 24 cents a pound while consumers in rich countries are paying roughly $3.60 a pound – a mark-up of 1500%. Nestle has also been accused of union-busting activities in Colombia and Thailand, including allegations of being indirectly involved in sending out ‘death threats’ to union leaders.
Nestle has been able to get away with all the above practices because it is not an ordinary company. Headquartered in Vevey, Switzerland, Nestle is the largest food and beverages company in the world. It has 447 factories, operates in 194 countries, and employs around 333,000 people. In 2011, Nestlé was listed No. 1 in the Fortune Global 500 as the world’s most profitable corporation. With a market capitalization of US$233 billion Nestle’s is a larger financial entity than over 100 countries in the world. Predictably Nestle has lobbyists in different countries who use the company’s economic clout to influence public policy. In the aftermath of the Maggi scandal the company has appointed the American lobbying giant APCO Worldwide to help whitewash its reputation. Having had the gumption to take on Nestle, it is hoped that the Indian Government will not be eventually browbeaten by Nestle’s financial and political clout.