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    Backstory: Maggi's 2 minutes of hell

    Backstory: Maggi's 2 minutes of hell

    Backstory: Maggi's 2 minutes of hell
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    By Sundeep Khanna   IST (Updated)

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    Nestle’s best-known product had a whopping 63 percent share of India’s Rs 5,000 crore noodle market. Globally too it was a big success with estimated sales of over five billion packets every year. Then in April 2015, the bottom fell out of the Maggi success story.

    Since its launch in 1982, Maggi noodles has been the nation’s favourite quick meal. Children, in particular, love it and mothers have been happy to go along since they can rustle up a supposedly healthy meal in two minutes flat. From the eye-catching ads to its colourful packaging and its claim to being nutritious and wholesome, it has been one of the best-known product brands in the country with brand ambassadors like Bollywood superstars Amitabh Bachchan and Madhuri Dixit.
    As a result by 2015, Nestle’s best-known product had a whopping 63 percent share of India’s Rs 5,000 crore noodle market. Globally too it was a big success with estimated sales of over five billion packets every year.
    Then in April 2015, the bottom fell out of the Maggi success story.
    It began in March 2014 with a routine check by a food inspector in the Food Safety and Drug Administration of the Uttar Pradesh government, who sent a sample packet of Maggi for testing against the claim on the label “no added monosodium glutamate (MSG)". In itself, MSG is a common enough amino acid often used as a food additive to enhance the flavour in Chinese food. Used in limited quantities, it is considered quite safe.
    But when the results came back, there was a shocker in store. The sample contained MSG. Further proof came when results of samples sent to the Central Food Laboratory in Kolkata in June 2014 came back, though a year later. Besides confirming the presence of MSG they revealed the even more damaging presence of high levels of lead. The 17.2 ppm (parts per million) found in the sample was said to be over 1,000 times more than what Nestle India had claimed.
    A formal notice was sent to Nestle which responded promptly with internal data disputing the charge. It also reiterated that its instant noodles were perfectly “safe to eat and that there was no question of a recall.”
    By now results of the tests were all over the news and Nestle’s defence appeared too weak. Soon, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) got into the act and on 5 June 2015, FSSAI asked Nestle to recall the noodles.
    The company still claimed the noodles were safe to consume but facing regulatory pressures and a consumer outcry it had no option but to resort to an immediate recall of Maggi from the market. Thousands of packets were removed from the shelves and destroyed over the next one month.
    In the meantime, samples tested in Bengaluru showed that lead and arsenic levels were within permissible limits although there wasn’t yet clarity on MSG. The very next day Nestle India moved the Bombay High Court for judicial review of the FSSAI ban and although its plea for interim relief was rejected, the court allowed exports of Maggi noodles from India. The restrictions on domestic sales however continued.
    Food regulators in Britain and Canada soon declared that Maggi noodles manufactured in India and exported to the two countries were safe to consume and contained lead well within permissible levels. With several state governments too clearing the product, on August 13, 2015, the Bombay High Court lifted the ban on Maggi noodles.
    The ban had cost the company crores in lost sales and its image took a severe beating. However, under a new CEO, Suresh Narayanan, it rapidly clawed back sales and recovered much of its lost share of the market. But even after it received a clean chit from relevant authorities, litigation continued to dog the company. In January 2019, the Supreme Court gave the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (NCDRC) the go-ahead to proceed with a class-action suit brought against Nestle three years earlier by the Centre for allegedly selling noodles that fell short of the existing food standards.
    —Sundeep Khanna is a former editor and the co-author of the recently released Azim Premji: The Man Beyond the Billions. Views are personal
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