Maggi row : A Tale of Apathy

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Even as the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) banned Maggi, the Central Food Laboratory (CFL) took almost one full year to release test reports which had damned the popular instant food product.The facts seem to suggest that due to the lackadaisical approach of the concerned government agency, ordinary people were made to consume adulterated noodles for a year.

In March 2014, a laboratory in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, tested the samples of Maggi. Food safety regulators found that Maggi had up to 17 times the permissible limit of lead in addition to the presence of Monosodium Glutamate (MSG).

When TEHELKA contacted PK Singh, Commissioner, Department of Food Safety and Drug Administration, Uttar Pradesh, he said, “In the month of March, 2014, Maggi samples were picked up from Barabanki, Uttar Pradesh and sent to a Gorakhpur Laboratory for testing purposes.”

In April 2014, the Gorakhpur laboratory found MSG and more than permissible quantity of lead in the Maggi samples tested. “We immediately informed Nestle India representatives, a disclosure which was repeated in July, that the samples were being sent to CFL, Kolkata  for final testing to verify the veracity of the findings,” Singh said.

The official added, “We sent the samples of the product to the CFL, Kolkata in July, 2014 for the test. We did not send our report.”

The CFL in a shockingly somnolent attitude submitted the final damning details only in April this year. The CFL in its report said that this Nestle product had unacceptable levels of chemicals such as lead in the product, which makes it harmful for human consumption.

DK Jawahar Lal, Food Analyst, Chennai, tells TEHELKA: “As such, no coordination exists between the state labs and centre government labs, however during testing of any product, the concerned labs coordinate with each other. This was not the case here.”

It is shocking is that CFL, which tested samples of this product had lost its accreditation on 18th March, 2015, in both Chemical and Biological disciplines and was waiting for further accreditation from National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories (NABL). The samples which were supposed to be delivered to the CFL, Kolkata, were not sent there directly. Instead, the samples were initially sent to a Shimla lab and from there it was sent to Kolkata. Many unanswered questions have come to the fore over the last fortnight, with some experts questioning the testing done by CFL and some who remain sceptical about the delay in declaring the results of the test carried out by the laboratory.

“It hardly takes ten minutes to test Maggi. If there was real concern about people, it is mystifying why state authorities took one month in releasing the reports to Nestle representatives,” said a food expert who wished to remain anonymous. “The permissible limit (of lead) is 2.5 parts-per-million (ppm) and it is often as low as 0.1 ppm in candies for kids. However, the reports from CFL reported the lead content in Maggie Noodles to be 17.20 ppm,” says the expert. Dr Inder Mann, medical practitioner from New York, USA, tells TEHELKA, “There are various products which are expected to contain lead in micro quantities. Higher lead intake can affect kidneys, central nervous system and immune system and can cause other physical problems such as behavioral disorders.”

A scientist, wishing anonymity, says, “When it comes to MSG, Food and Drug Administration considers MSG as “Generally Recognized as a Safe”. Scientific studies are yet to establish the severity of MSG’s side effects, but we all know that excessive consumption of MSG can affect health. MSG is one of the most abundant naturally-occurring non-essential amino acids. MSG is found in tomatoes, cheese, potatoes, mushrooms, and other vegetables and fruits.”

Another senior scientist tells TEHELKA, “In India, reagent-grade (distilled or de-ionised) water with no detectable amount of any compounds is used for analytical laboratory testing. Distillation removes all kinds of organic or inorganic soluble impurities. Through this process, the risk of contamination of samples is reduced.”

Three levels of reagent water is being used: Grade-1, Grade-2 and Grade-3. Grade-1 reagent water is generally used in testing which requires minimum interference and maximum precision such as trace analysis. Grade-2 reagent water is used in the laboratory procedures where freedom from organic impurities is of more significance. It is not applicable for biological or medical analysis and organic trace analysis. Grade-3 reagent water is used in washing of glassware, as feed-water for production of high grade liquids or where large quantity of low purity water is required for making up of synthetic test solutions. When TEHELKA called CFL, for ascertaining which grade of reagent water was used for testing the Maggi samples, there was no response.

India’s biggest retailers such as the Future Group which includes Big Bazaar, Easy day and Nilgiris have imposed a nationwide ban on Maggi. On 4 June, the government of Tamil Nadu also banned Maggi and four other brands of noodles due to unacceptable amount of lead and other components. Maggi has also been banned in four other states in India. Nepal also indefinitely banned Maggi over concerns about the levels of lead in the product.

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