How food became a talking point in 2015
Food debates of varying kind dominated the year – from middle classes shedding tears over recall of instant noodles to villagers in Bundelkhand eating grass rotis – exposing vast inequities in the Indian society, notes the writer Dinesh C Sharma
If we were to shortlist subjects that dominated public discourse in the country during 2015, food will be a surprise pick along with usual suspects like corruption, intolerance, pollution and so on. The noodles controversy, food safety regulation, beef bans, launch of ‘yogic’ noodles, ban on junk food products in schools, skyrocketing prices of pulses and reports of hunger in Bundelkhand dominated news headlines and public discourse at various points during the year. If the middle class was saddened over recall of contaminated Maggi noodles and then rejoiced over its return as if it was their life savior, images of poor villagers in drought-hit Bundelkhand eating rotis made of grass made shocking television though the administration remained in denial.
While every move related to the Maggi ban and its eventual return to superstore shelves was covered in detail along with live discussions, Bundelkhand horror did not get the attention it deserved. The shooting prices of pulses, a major source of protein for the poor, garnered much attention and led to import of dals and their distribution through government outlets. The beef ban in some states took violent turn and led to a brutal murder in Dadri near the national capital, on the suspicion of presence of beef in a household refrigerator. The beef issue also caused avoidable tension in the Osmania University and other campuses across the country.
The recall of Maggi noodle packets from markets in Uttar Pradesh triggered discussion on food safety regulation in the country. This was the first time, a major food company, Nestle, was booked for misbranding its products and for contamination with excess amounts of excess toxic heavy metals. Though the two-minute noodle brand is back in food stores after necessary action, we are yet to hear the last word on this controversy as the matter is still subjudice. The stand taken by the Minister for Food Processing Industries in this matter was shocking.
Instead of sharing concerns of consumers, the minister chose to side with the junk food industry and said that the controversy would affect investment in food processing sector. The minister even took the matter to the Prime Minister. Such pressure from inside the government, coupled with high intensity lobbying by the industry, led to sacking of the chief executive officer of food regulator, Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), who had gone after violations by Nestle. Instead of weakening the food regulator like this, the government should amend the law to make it completely independent and autonomous much like stock market regulator, Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI).
The noodle debate took a curious turn when yoga exponent and promoter of Patanjali Ayurved Limited, Ramdev, launched a new brand of noodles. The move was extremely ironic because someone who claims to be a proponent of Ayurveda – which propagates principles of slow food – becomes a champion of very fast food which he has been criticizing all along. Like Nestle, Ramdev too ran into regulatory roadblocks when FSSAI found that his noodle brand had not been approved for food safety. Ramdev responded by saying that his company had a manufacturing license to make pasta, which entitled it to manufacture noodles too.
This means the yoga expert is now making both noodles and pasta. This thoroughly exposed his public stand that fast foods are bad for health of children. On March 15, 2014, Ramdev had famously tweeted asking his supports “let’s junk junk food for a healthy nation.” He had also denounced sports icons who advertised junk food products. The launch of Patanjali noodles exposes that his ‘boycott junk food’ call was a mere posturing of a businessmen just to denounce competing products and had nothing to do with the health of children. Factory processed and mass marketed noodles will come with a tag of junk food, whether they are sold by Nestle or Patanjali.
On the positive side, the food regulator published ‘Draft guidelines for making available wholesome, nutritious, safe and hygienic food to school children in India’. The guidelines are a result of an ongoing litigation in the Delhi High Court and have been developed by experts based on scientific evidence regarding link between consumption of foods high in fat, salt and sugar and non-communicable diseases. Among other things, guideline suggests restricting sale of junk food in schools and areas up to 50 meters nearby. The year 2016 will crucial to see how these guidelines are implemented.
-The writer is Fellow, Centre for Media Studies, New Delhi. Views are personal.