The least we can ask of food is that it doesn’t harm us. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) that decides which food is safe to eat, says the instant noodle brand Maggi should be shunned because it contains excessive lead. But Nestlé maintains that it is safe. Who do we believe?
The answer depends on whether you think that all the ingredients in processed food should be tested individually for safety, or that the food should be tested in the form in which you finally consume it.
The FSSAI tested the Maggi Tastemaker and found excessive lead in it. Nestlé, however, believes it’s ‘Maggi’ only when the noodles and the flavouring masala are mixed in boiling water. So, its own tests of lead levels in the cooked noodles are well within permissible limits.
Quite rightly, Nestlé believes food should be tested for safety in the form in which it will be eaten. But the Swiss giant can hardly afford to dismiss this crisis as an ‘Indian’ problem. Regulators in the US, the EU and in Nestlé’s home country Switzerland follow the same principle adopted by the FSSAI.
Take basmati rice. In 2011-12, the US Food and Drug Authority (FDA) began automatically detaining basmati containers from India because tests on uncooked rice found the pesticide tricyclazole beyond permissible limits. The FDA refused to listen to Indian rice exporters who argued that raw basmati rice should not be tested because the cooking process and addition of water reduces harmful chemicals to within permissible limits.
The US also refused to allow Indian exporters to reroute their shipments to other countries that have a free-trade agreement with it, such as Canada and Mexico. Almost half the exported quantity is forcibly sent back to India each year since then.
The Indian government tried to step in through the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (Apeda), under the Union ministry of commerce. But its efforts were in vain. Till date, the US tests basmati in uncooked form. Only the permissible level of tricyclazole has been raised slightly. Indian exporters continue to face harassment in other large markets such as the EU that also test raw basmati rice.
Ironically, it is not as if the FDA doesn’t understand the logic of testing food in its final form. Processed foods such as orange juice concentrate, dehydrated vegetables and powdered potato are tested by the FDA only after compensating for, or reconstituting to, the commodity’s normal moisture content. So, Indian exporters can’t be blamed for believing that the FDA’s testing of raw basmati is American trade protectionism by another name.
The FSSAI may not be acting with similar motives. But the impact of its action has been equally dramatic and politically loaded. Consumer confidence is bruised. Business has been lost. The real takeaway from the Maggi crisis is that food safety regulators across the world need to arrive at a common understanding of how to test processed foods. Corporate giants such as Nestlé can easily take the lead in lobbying for this change. Not just in India. But in their home countries as well.