Court keeps Maggi lovers waiting

S Madhusudhana Rao

The two-minute Maggi noodle magic seems to return to India sooner than expected after one of the most popular fast foods was banned in June over its alleged high content of lead. What is seen as a major victory for the Swiss multinational Nestle in general and its Indian subsidiary in particular, the Bombay High Court on Thursday quashed the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) order banning all the nine variants of Maggi noodles. The court said in its order that since principles of natural justice were not followed, the ban was set aside.

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S Madhusudhana Rao

However, the court order doesn’t automatically entail Maggi to reintroduce its products. To get a clean chit, the company has to get five samples of each variant of noodles tested at three independent accredited labs in Punjab, Hyderabad and Jaipur. If the lead content is found to be below acceptable levels for human consumption at all the three labs, Nestle India can restart production of Maggi noodles. The labs have to give their reports within six weeks. The samples Nestle will be sending to the labs will be among those the company had kept aside after destroying all its stocks in the country following the ban.

The respite came amidst reports that the US watchdog Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has declared Maggi noodles safe after conducting its own safety checks on a few samples. Earlier, health regulators in Britain, Singapore, Canada, Australia and Vietnam had given Maggi a clean bill of health, saying that lead content in the branded noodles was within safety limits.

These international findings, including those of USFDA whose verification standards are among the highest in the world, and variations in results of tests done at labs in different states in India raise some important, albeit basic, questions. If labs in India and other countries are following the same standard procedures to test food samples, why the lead content in given samples was at variance with each other?

The inference one can draw is either the procedures followed at labs were different or the samples submitted for testing had different levels of the toxic substance. Normally, every lab gives a margin of error but if it varies wildly, it should be taken seriously. In the case of Maggi, FSSAI and Indian Food and Drug Administration (FDA) insist the noodles manufactured in India had excess amounts of lead while Nestle contests that claim. Now, with another round of testing on the cards, Maggi noodle lovers have to wait for six more weeks to know whether their magic food will return to their dining tables or not.

While the legal battle is going on, the central government has surprised the Swiss major and the Indian corporate sector with its class action suit against Nestle India. Now considered hasty by industry watchers, the Consumer Affairs Ministry has filed a complaint before the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (NCDRC) seeking 284.45 crore in basic damages and Rs 355.50 crore in punitive damages from the Swiss multinational for what the petition said the harm Maggi has done to consumers by its false claims. Moreover, the government wants Nestle India to pay interest at a rate of 18 percent per annum till the date of actual payment.

This is the first time the Government of India has gone in a big way to claim damages from a top brand on behalf of consumers. While its over enthusiasm in dealing with Nestle is laudable in the interest of consumers, what happens if the new lab tests find the lead content in submitted samples are within the safety limits for consumption? Will the company turn the tables on the government and seek punitive damages? If it is in the US, it will; but here, it is unlikely.

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