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Did Nestle India have the option to stop total maggi recall?

10,August, 2015 Comments off

Business Standard pieces together the events – all quite dramatic – that might have led to the country’s first mega regulatory clampdown

Could a public statement by Nestle regretting “misleading label” related to monosodium glutamate (MSG) on Maggi noodle packets have prevented a pan-Indian recall of the product? Sources at the Food Safety & Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) suggest the Swiss food major was given the option of expressing regret in a public statement, for “wrongly” mentioning on the packets that the instant noodle had no added MSG. The issue on excessive lead, another defect found in Maggi samples, could have been tackled with recall of certain batches and corrective measures, they indicated.
Even as Nestle admitted to the regulator that the line on MSG could have been avoided on the noodle packets, it refused to regret the mistake in a public statement. it is learnt. That, perhaps, was the turning point in the Maggi saga.
To a question on whether it was asked by the regulator to issue a public statement on MSG labelling, a Nestle India spokesperson said: “As the matter is sub juice, we would refrain from giving a response at this stage and request your understanding.”
Two months after FSSAI ordered a recall of Maggi noodles from store shelves across India, Business Standard pieces together the events – all quite dramatic – that might have led to the country’s first mega regulatory clampdown.
In fact, what happened between June 4 and 5 this year in New Delhi – more than a year after MSG and excessive lead were detected in Maggi samples at Uttar Pradesh’s Barabanki district in March 2014 – is intriguing.
On June 4, FSSAI Chief Executive Yudhvir Singh Malik, a 1983-batch Haryana-cadre IAS officer, had a busy day meeting food commissioners from across India, to discuss many things, including a crackdown on companies. The same afternoon, at the capital’s FDA Bhavan (FSSAI headquarters), Malik had an important visitor – Nestle’s global CEO Paul Bulcke, who had flown from Switzerland to stop the Maggi mess from growing bigger in a market that held promise.
At Rs 2,500 crore, Nestle India’s revenue from Maggi noodles stands at 25 per cent of total. Bulcke was accompanied by Etienne Benet, then managing director of Nestle India.
Bulcke’s visit was a secret closely kept until the company sent out invites to the media at midnight, saying the global CEO would make an announcement at noon the next day. From the time Nestle top boss’ meeting with Malik ended in the evening of June 4, to the midnight, when press invites were sent out, the company is believed to have weighed the options available to it. Having declined the offer to publicly state its position on MSG labelling, it chose to voluntarily recall the product, knowing that FSSAI was in no mood to relent.
Why then did FSSAI order a pan-Indian recall of Maggi noodles on June 5, when Bulcke was already withdrawing it from the market, at a widely attended press conference? Sources indicate the food regulator, with full backing from the government, had decided to send out a signal to industry, especially multinational companies, that rules could not be played around with.
But by the morning of June 5, things had changed. So, even as Nestle was preparing its answers to the many questions that might be asked at Bulcke’s presser, FSSAI, now aware of Nestle’s mind, was ready to advance its order to stop manufacturing Maggi noodles in India, and recall the product from the market.
The FSSAI order followed high-level meetings in the government. But when asked, Malik said: “I have not received any instructions from the government on the issue. The regulator has been allowed to work independently.”
Now, with industry representatives suggesting the action against Maggi had been a case of overreach by the regulator, the government is playing cautious to ensure investor sentiment is not hurt. Food Processing Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal recently said the Maggi crisis had resulted in an environment of fear for industry. Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi had told his Cabinet colleagues to “maintain decorum” in the Maggi case, consumer affairs minister Ram Vilas Paswan said last week.
A combination of things might have contributed to a change in thinking within the government. For one, some international regulators, including those in the UK and Singapore, gave a clean chit to Maggi noodles exported from India. That might have put a question mark on the credibility of FSSAI and its accredited labs that tested Maggi samples and showed contamination.
An FSSAI official said the UK regulator had been approached repeatedly to share its findings, but it did not reply. FSSAI sought the details of the report from Nestle as well, but a company spokesperson told this newspaper, “food regulators of the UK and Singapore had conducted their own tests on Maggi noodles from India, in view of the concerns being raised. These are independent authorities and Nestle is not privy to the testing details”.
Also, Goa Food and Drug Administration, whose Maggi samples were considered “ineligible” because of wrong readings in its report, had sent the same samples for further analysis to Mysuru’s premiere referral lab, Central Food Technology Research Institute (CFTRI). In its report, made public last week, CFTRI said Maggi noodles complied with FSSAI rules and standards.
In such a scenario, the regulator, now pushed to a corner, is trying to explain that the action by FSSAI was not a knee-jerk one, and that there is no reason to call it a case of over-reach. “Six states had already banned Maggi noodles before the FSSAI order… It is not based on an isolated sample,” Malik reiterated last week. Pointing out that a provision for enforcement will always lead to annoyance of some and happiness of others, Malik said he was more concerned about the health of children consuming the noodles than anything else.
And, in a sign of things to come, Nestle India has got a managing director, Suresh Narayanan, who was earlier with the Philippines operations, to replace Etienne Benet. Soon after, the government appointed Ashish Bahuguna, former agriculture secretary, as the FSSAI chairman, a post that had been vacant for several months.
It’s a different matter, though, that the timing of the FSSAI order was perhaps prompted by the Nestle decision on voluntary recall. FSSAI officials had told reporters on the evening of June 4 that any action would be taken after receiving more sample test results from states, which were awaited. But by the morning of June 5, things had changed. So, even as Nestle was preparing its answers to the many questions that might be asked at Bulcke’s presser, FSSAI, now aware of Nestle’s mind, was ready to advance its order to stop manufacturing Maggi noodles in India, and recall the product from the market.
The FSSAI order followed high-level meetings in the government. But when asked, Malik said: “I have not received any instructions from the government on the issue. The regulator has been allowed to work independently.”
Now, with industry representatives suggesting the action against Maggi had been a case of overreach by the regulator, the government is playing cautious to ensure investor sentiment is not hurt. Food Processing Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal recently said the Maggi crisis had resulted in an environment of fear for industry. Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi had told his Cabinet colleagues to “maintain decorum” in the Maggi case, consumer affairs minister Ram Vilas Paswan said last week.
A combination of things might have contributed to a change in thinking within the government. For one, some international regulators, including those in the UK and Singapore, gave a clean chit to Maggi noodles exported from India. That might have put a question mark on the credibility of FSSAI and its accredited labs that tested Maggi samples and showed contamination.
An FSSAI official said the UK regulator had been approached repeatedly to share its findings, but it did not reply. FSSAI sought the details of the report from Nestle as well, but a company spokesperson told this newspaper, “food regulators of the UK and Singapore had conducted their own tests on Maggi noodles from India, in view of the concerns being raised. These are independent authorities and Nestle is not privy to the testing details”.
Also, Goa Food and Drug Administration, whose Maggi samples were considered “ineligible” because of wrong readings in its report, had sent the same samples for further analysis to Mysuru’s premiere referral lab, Central Food Technology Research Institute (CFTRI). In its report, made public last week, CFTRI said Maggi noodles complied with FSSAI rules and standards.
In such a scenario, the regulator, now pushed to a corner, is trying to explain that the action by FSSAI was not a knee-jerk one, and that there is no reason to call it a case of over-reach. “Six states had already banned Maggi noodles before the FSSAI order… It is not based on an isolated sample,” Malik reiterated last week. Pointing out that a provision for enforcement will always lead to annoyance of some and happiness of others, Malik said he was more concerned about the health of children consuming the noodles than anything else.
And, in a sign of things to come, Nestle India has got a managing director, Suresh Narayanan, who was earlier with the Philippines operations, to replace Etienne Benet. Soon after, the government appointed Ashish Bahuguna, former agriculture secretary, as the FSSAI chairman, a post that had been vacant for several months.
HOW THE CONTROVERSY COOKED UP2014
Mar 10: UP FDA officer collects Maggi noodles sample from a retail shop in Barabanki, UP
Mar 26: Govt-owned lab in Gorakhpur finds monosodium glutamate in Maggi. UP FDA serves notice on Nestle
2015
Apr 30: UP FDA sends “order of recall” for the sample batch
May 30: UP FDA files case against Nestle India
Jun 1-4: States like Gujarat, Uttarakhand, Tamil Nadu, Delhi, UP and J&K ban the noodles
Jun 5: Nestle withdraws the noodles from markets
Jun 9: Singapore declares Maggi noodles to be safe for consumption
Jun 11: Nestle moves Bombay HC. Initiates incineration of 30,000 tonnes of the noodles
Jun 18: UP, eight other states fail to find excess lead in Maggi
Jun 30: Bombay HC allows Nestle India to export the noodles
Jul 8: Food Processing Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal blames FSSAI for inducing fear in the industry
Jul 25: Suresh Narayanan appointed new Nestle India managing director
Aug 8: Health Minister J P Nadda accuses Nestle of not being forthcoming on questions raised by FSSAI

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