By Vijay Sanghvi
Maggi ready to eat noodles was in the centre of controversy after the local authorities in Lucknow asked the company to recall two hundred thousand packets of noodles manufactured in February 2014.
The authorities asked the makers of Maggi to withdraw their product only in April 2015 with a claim that they had traced presence of harmful substance Mono Sodium Glutamate (MSG) in samples picked up by it. The demand hit headlines only in May third week with a single newspaper revealing the order to give credence to the belief that it was deliberate leakage so as to escape the consequence of the false public claims.
The circumstance of publication raises several questions that have no apparent answers. The item did clarify when samples were picked up and why did the authorities wait for six months after expiry of the date of the product to ask the makers to withdraw their product from the market. Why wait for nearly a month before the leakage of order and why no public warning was issued if the food substance was so harmful?
Was any bribe demanded from Nestle in the period between finding the harmful substance and leakage of information that took a heavy toll of the popularity of Maggi and other products of the company?
Above all if the state drug department found harmful substance in the samples why other states were not warned of it to alert them as well? Why the central authority was not alerted? This lack of communication in the interest of general good cannot be explained away merely with a plea that the state was not obliged to communicate. It leads to suspicions that there were ulterior motives in leaking out the information if true to merely a single reporter.
The circumstance of this leakage reminds me of an incident in 1980. The cops at Palam Airport found a loose cigarette from the pocket of an 17 year old American of Indian origin who had come to India with his family. The boy was accused of carrying drugs in his coat pocket and arrested. When parents approached the Forensic Laboratory where the sample was sent for analysis, they were asked to pay Rs. Two lakh for a favourable report. When parents refused to fork out the amount, they were told their refusal would ensure conviction of their son as the analyser would now send report confirming presence of drugs in the sample.
Public reactions and also reactions of authorities in different states have also same run as it had in 1997 after a doctor in a private hospital attending to six dropsy patients aired suspicions of presence of Dhatura in the Mustard oil consumed by patients. He had not cared to get laboratory tests of oil before airing his suspicions. But it caused such a panic through the country that consumption of mustard oil was suspended with authorities in different states swopping on godowns and trucks laden with and confiscating mustard oil stocks. Experts of Agriculture ministry assured through visual and audio media that there was no need to panic as dhatura seeds were not harmful but added zing to the mustard oil.
No ill effect was reported in Delhi where mustard oil– the cheapest, cooking medium is consumed by most poor families.
However panic had led the Rajasthan government to ban production of mustard oil in several thousand ghanis (Bullock drawn expellers of mustard to extract oil). The state economy was affected as mustard oil was one of major product in the state. Panic was controlled after a month. But it left a debilitating impact on cottage industry in Rajasthan while other oil brands reaped a rich harvest. This was a popular route in the market mechanism to destroy popularity of a rival product.
Yet another incident is worth recalling. The Food Corporation had disposed off over 5 million tonnes of C and D category wheat stocks to flour mills taking advantage of mandatory purchase of wheat only from FCI so that it could avoid loss involved in destroying inedible wheat stock in such a huge quantum. The wheat category was not suitable even for animal consumption. When aberration was brought to the notice of Indira Gandhi in April 1980, she had decreed the destruction of such category wheat in future and also withdrawn orders mandating purchase of wheat by flour mills only from FCI. Thus she had eliminated misuse of authority vested in hands of government agencies.
It does not allow the company however to escape its responsibility to explain away convincingly the presence of the harmful substance in its product for its twenty years of intense campaign has lured millions of mothers to depend on product that can save them time on cooking. Packed food industry has grown in leaps and bounds since women moved out of kitchen to attend to other works to enhance the family incomes to provide better life and opportunities to their children. The noodles advertising campaigns were so effective that even children living in slums insisted on their mothers to give them noodles instead of bake roti for them. Other products have not been able to take the place of this popular product as Maggi became a name to identify noodles as Amul is name to identify butter.