Amit Khurana, head, food safety and toxins at the Centre for Science and Environment, says the Maggi controversy is an opportunity to revisit the norms on nutrition fact labelling of products.
In an interview to Stutee Kotnala, Mr Khurana emphasises periodic monitoring for chemical and heavy metal contaminates.
What’s your opinion on Nestle CEO Paul Bulcke’s defence of Maggi instant noodles?
Nestle’s defence is different from the government’s version. About the safety of Maggi, the order by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) directing the company to recall the product, while referring to reports from various states, clearly talks about overwhelming evidence of Maggi being unsafe and hazardous for human consumption.
Do you think withdrawing the product from the market is the best way to address the issue?
In this case, the recall ordered by the government is a necessary step to ensure food safety and public health. An episode like this should contribute to better long-term outcomes on food safety regulations, monitoring and responsible food industry. For example, there is clear recognition of the need for systematic and periodic monitoring of food across the country, responsible promotion by celebrities and greater compliance with the law of the land.
Nestle has withdrawn Maggi from the market and claims that it maintains the same quality standards across the world. While Nestle’s own tests have not found any lead in their samples, the Central food safety regulator FSSAI’s tests claim otherwise. Why do you think there is a discrepancy?
In principle, the lab results can potentially vary depending upon the samples, methodology and machines used to test. It is important to note that more than one lab is reported to have found lead in excess limits. The onus of providing safe products rests on the end-product manufacturer. Moreover, in the order for recall, the FSSAI has provided a detailed response to the concerns raised by the company.
At least seven states have banned Maggi after finding dangerously high levels of lead and monosodium glutamate (MSG). Nestle launched Maggi in 1983. If Maggi was not following the stipulated food standards, what took the government so long to ban the product?
It is common knowledge that the Indian food regulatory body is in its first decade of existence. While the Food Safety and Standards Act came into existence in 2006, the rules and regulations were only formalised in 2011. More importantly, it is the states that are responsible for implementation of the food safety act and regulations, which may vary depending on the human resources and laboratory infrastructure available. We certainly need many more labs and trained technicians. The focus appears to have been on adulteration that is easy to detect. Packaged food, on the other hand, is likely to be considered safe as the awareness levels about contamination with heavy metals and agricultural chemicals is limited and yet to become streamlined in food monitoring. Nor is there an online database to suggest what has been tested and found.
There are reports that not only do Maggi noodles have lead content much more than the permissible limit but the salt intake is also six grams whereas the permissible limit is only three grams.
Yes, in 2012 we at CSE tested Maggi for salt, sugar and fats and found a high level of salt in it. A packet of Maggi contains about half the daily recommended intake. Consumption of a pack of this popular snack among children clearly leaves little space for salt from other food sources. This effectively leads to over-consumption of salt that contributes to heart diseases and hypertension.
And what about packaged and ready-to-eat/ cooked foods?
Ultra-processed packaged foods in general contain excess salt, sugar and fat to increase palatability and shelf life. These also aid in masking bad taste and odour of several chemical additives that are integral to processing, but not much is known about their presence and safety. Since consumption of such food is increasing and there are new products entering the market every day, their periodic monitoring for chemical and heavy metal contaminates and adherence to nutrition and health labelling claims should go a long way in food safety management in the country.
According to the FSSAI, the proportion of food samples not conforming to standards, among the tens of thousands of food samples, increased from 12 per cent during 2011-2012 to 14 per cent in 2012-2013, and was 18 per cent in 2013-2014. What’s your take on this?
In this case, it is the state food safety department, and then the FSSAI, that have taken action against Maggi noodles. The FSSAI seems to have taken charge of it and clearly explained its position in the order for recall. With reference to the data made public by the FSSAI on earlier years, it mentions taking action against those found not conforming to the standards. But certainly much more needs to be done. It is still unknown as to what was tested, what kinds of products did not conform to which standards.
Why is the focus only on lead and MSG? There are artificial sweeteners, synthetic food colours and antibiotics in chicken that need monitoring.
Yes, a systematic monitoring programme should be developed for testing food products for known heavy metals, agricultural chemicals and chemicals posing high risk, including veterinary drugs such as antibiotics. The government should also maintain a public information and disclosure system for all tests and results.
During the 2003 pesticide scandal that hit Pepsi in India, the Indian government flip-flopped between dismissing CSE’s findings and supporting the group’s call for more stringent standards for carbonated drinks. Do you think there’s any hope for stringent measures in the case of Maggi?
In the case of soft drinks that we had tested for pesticides, the government notified standards for pesticides in carbonated drinks in 2008. These were the first of their kind in the world. We are hopeful that the law will take its own course and the public health and food safety of the country will not be compromised.
Unlike in the West, it is often noticed that Indian consumers are unaware of ingredients and nutrition information on a product due to the lack of appropriate nutrition fact labelling.
Limited consumer awareness is a big issue in a country like India. Companies, therefore, do not have a compelling reason to disclose adequate and appropriate information. The labelling laws in the country need much more improvement. For example, the amount of salt is not required to be mentioned. Nutrition fact labelling, which is a norm in several countries, is not yet applicable in India. It provides information on calories, salt, sugar and fat compared to recommended daily intake. Such information is considered significant to help in limiting non-communicable diseases. We do not have systems for front-of-pack and menu labelling system either.
Brand ambassadors like Amitabh Bachchan, Madhuri Dixit and Preity Zinta have landed in a soup. Why is there no government-backed regulation to control celebrity-endorsed advertisements in the country? Should there be control over such ads?
Children are easily influenced by advertisements. They are also not the best judges of their food choices. Celebrity endorsement, worldwide, is a key issue in the promotion of ultra-processed junk foods, particularly among children. There is an increasing recognition on the need to regulate it to limit childhood obesity and other diseases. India does not have a government body to regulate advertisements and product promotions. Self-regulation by industry has also been reported to be ineffective in this regard.
It is important that food advertisements are not targeted at children. Such advertisements should be regulated across all media (including new-age advergames i.e. advertising using games) to limit exposure to children. Also, in-school and out-school promotion events and disguised advertisements of such ultra-processed foods and their brands should be regulated.