Maggi way to cleanse the system

S.Madhusudhana Rao

I am not a foodie. Nor am I fond of what is disparagingly called junk food. I don’t know why traditional food lovers junk the thought of eating easy-to-prepare and equally easy-to-wash-down with a fizzy drink. Is it because all these fast foods come from the West and spoil our notions of healthy eating habits? Or, is it because of our ingrained habit of swallowing what grandmas and grandpas have been telling us for generations that what comes out of home kitchens is the best in the world?

S.Madhusudhana Rao

S.Madhusudhana Rao

Whatever the reason may be, foods prepared in a minute or two have been tagged and condemned to the status of junk – as if they are not fit for human consumption. Since these are all products of an alien culture where women don’t toil hours together to prepare food for the family, unlike their Indian counterparts, fast food has gained little respect in the eyes of puritans in India. Their refrain, even after the instant foods have attained a cult status among New Gen in recent years, is our desi foods (hundreds in variety and taste) are superior to mass-produced, packed, frozen and reheated snacks. What all this boils down to is, American franchised pizzas, fried chickens and the like which are prohibitively costly by average Indian standards only cater to rich people’s tastes.

These perceptions, however, have started changing in the last one decade, thanks largely to an increasing outflow of techies to the US where fast foods are staple diets for a population which has little time to cook and savour. Life in the fast lane means instant food to douse hunger pangs. Add to this is our own burgeoning young population being brought up on American dream and prosperous middle class. Notwithstanding the fact that chicken and cheese and sugar-loaded colas could widen their girths, fast food lovers are an ever expanding lot in this country. So are the instant snack bars, shacks and trademarked franchisee outlets. The spin-off of the instant food culture is our own variations and varieties of dishes to serve the peculiar tastes of millions across the country. Burgers, pizzas, fried chicken, you name it, every fast food that was originally conceived to taste in a particular way has acquired an Indian taste to satisfy the palates of millions. In a way, we have successfully blended our flavors with western fast foods to keep our traditional tastes alive.

Call it instant gratification, junk food is here to stay and the quicker and tastier it is made the better, both for maker and consumer. In this segment, no other fast food comes anywhere near Maggi noodles. It’s a magic food for kids and a boon for hassled housewives and stressed working women. It needs just 2 minutes to prepare yummy noodles to silence howling kids at home and make them ecstatic.

Since 1983 when Maggi hit the Indian market, it had been riding a wave of popularity on the 2-minute mantra. Until then the Swiss multinational Nestle had been known in this country for its most famous –now forgotten – Milkmaid condensed milk. To say Maggi noodles are a hit in the Indian market is an understatement. Its success and growth are directly proportional to the growing food fads of Indian middle class and the Maggi brand has assumed a cult status at a time when the female working population has been exponentially growing and seeking easy ways to get rid of kitchen drudgery as often as possible.

Maggi or Nestle’s Indian subsidiary had never been so good as it was until it hit the roadblock last week over safety concerns. Lab tests had claimed that the noodles had excessive, read unacceptable, levels of lead and mono sodium glutamate (MSG). Both are toxic and harmful to human health if consumed in excess of set standards. Nestle stresses it maintains the same standard and has the same quality checks as its products manufactured in other countries and Maggi noodles are absolutely safe for human consumption. Nevertheless, it has pulled out Maggi stocks from shelves all over the country. It has promised not to release the product “until the situation is clear.” The company also has to clarify its position on the presence of lead and MSG in all variants of Maggi noodles, say in about 10 days from now.  The Indian Government is also seeking damages from the Indian arm of the Swiss multinational.

While consumer protection groups and Maggi customers have started a countdown for the outcome, a few questions elude satisfactory answers.

One. If the Maggi noodles contain high levels of toxins, why have not they been detected earlier by the food standard institutes and labs in the country?

Two. Why no report of consumers falling ill after prolonged consumption of Maggi noodles come to public and government notice. If there are any cases, have they been ignored or hushed up?

Three. So far, Nestle’s response to the controversy is one of caution. The company’s statements lack assurances and clarity. Is it waiting for further tests on its noodles to get to the root cause of contamination?

Four. MSG is known as a taste enhancer and many countries have banned it from using it in food products as it is believed to have adverse effects on human health, particularly on young children. If Maggi noodles are known to include MSG in their product sachets to enhance the instant food taste, why the percentage of the substance has not been tested and action taken earlier?

That means there is certain amount of laxity on the side of both the government and Nestle. However, the storm created by Maggi has brought into sharp focus, for the first time in India, consumers’ rights and their concerns about the quality of food sold in the open market.

Let this be the beginning of a movement that should encompass not only fast food products but also every other food item sold to gullible public. We are all victims of food adulteration, water pollution, air contamination and spurious drugs and much more. The perpetrators of consumer crimes are rarely caught, let alone brought to justice. Let it begin with Maggi.

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