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Different standards

The country’s highest consumer court on Wednesday ordered tests on 16 samples of Nestlé’s instant noodles product Maggi, following a request from the Central government. According to various reports, the court was hearing an Rs 640-crore class-action suit against Nestlé. The bench of the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission directed the tests to be completed before the next hearing on January 1. The court had earlier ordered tests on 13 samples of Maggi noodles. These results are also awaited. The entire controversy surrounding Maggi began when the Food and Safety Standards Authority of India had banned the popular snack across the country in June after some samples were found to contain excessively high levels of lead. However, in October, the Bombay High Court lifted the ban. Last month Nestle India said that it had started production of Maggi noodles from its fourth plant at Pantnagar in Uttarakhand. Nestle, which relaunched Maggi noodles on November 9, is presently producing it at three locations:  Nanjangud (Karnataka), Moga (Punjab) and Bicholim (Goa).  “In past few weeks, Nestle has been in active engagement with the authorities and has provided all the documents and clarifications, before commencement of production,” the company had said in a recent statement. The peculiar to and fro by the Government of India in the Maggi instant noodles case is peculiar, to say the very least. All the samples of Maggi Noodles Masala had been cleared by three laboratories under the National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration. For the uninitiated, these accredited labs were mandated by the Bombay High Court to conduct rigorous tests on the product. The tests have reportedly found that the lead content was well below permissible limits. 

Despite such findings, the Centre had earlier seen it fit to tarnish the image of the popular noodles brand, without performing due diligence. How does the Centre hope to attract foreign investments, when our regulatory systems are in such a mess? The Food Safety and Regulatory Authority of India (FSSAI) has now set down an online application process asking different food products across various companies in India to state their detailed manufacturing process, ingredients and source of raw materials for approval. They have also set an upper limit as far as the inclusion of additives such as lead or MSG is concerned. However, in spite of all the guidelines, there is no legal provision that mandates the testing of products before approval. This is only the beginning of a series of faults within the FSSAI machinery. One of its major flaws is that once there is a notice for a ban or approval initiated, there is no system in place which ensures the smooth running of the decisions taken within the FSSAI. The status of delayed approval is also one of the common complaints as far as the FSSAI’s functioning is concerned.

Not surprisingly the naysayers were out in full force as soon as the ban hit the popular brand.  Taking on Maggi when it was banned, Baba Ramdev had said that the noodles brand should apologise. Ramdev had also asked that the company should be asked to pack up and leave the country. It goes without saying that this was a clever ploy to pitch for his brand of maida-free instant noodles.

Ramdev had hoped that the controversy had done enough to scare off people and attract them to Patanjali Atta noodles. However, according to a recent report in leading news daily, the instant noodles brand launched by Ramdev had not obtained mandatory product approvals from the FSSAI, even though Patanjali Atta Noodles packets display an “FSSAI licence number”. Ramdev’s firm had, however, insisted that it did have the necessary government approval. Suffice to say, our regulatory authorities have not acted with the same vigour in the Patanjali Atta noodles case as they did with Maggi noodles.
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