How Safe is Our Food: Food and Beverage Controversies in India in Recent Years

Food and Beverage Controversies in India

Food and Beverage Controversies in India

In the last few years, there have been many controversies in the food space, regarding safety and quality standards of certain popular food items which have come under the strict scanner of government and food safety regulators. Prior to Maggie noodles controversy, there were other controversial food products which created furore. Let us discuss below some of the most controversial food and beverage products which plagued India in the last few years. We will also discuss what led to the controversy, the action taken by the Government, the company’s line of defence and the final outcome.

Maggie Noodles: Company – Nestle India

Let’s start with Maggie Noodles, the all-time favourite 2-minute noodles. This was a favourite food item for everyone. It was easy to prepare, tasty and supposed to be filling and healthy. And then the controversy arose.

• High Lead and MSG content controversy: In May 2014, Food Safety Regulators from Uttar Pradesh, India reported that samples of Maggi noodles had high levels of monosodium glutamate (MSG). There was also lead content in Maggie much beyond the permissible limits. The FSDA officials reported that the lead content in Maggie was 17.2 parts per million (ppm) while the acceptable limit of lead ranges between 0.01 ppm and 2.5 ppm.

• Health effect: Consumption of lead and MSG beyond the limits can damage almost every organ. If lead and MSG are allowed to accumulate in our body for a long period of time then it can spread to our liver, kidney, brain, and bones causing long-term damage. Children are likely to be more affected.

• Government action: Following that report, more subsequent tests in Maggie followed and in June 2014, the Government of India and India’s food regulator ordered the withdrawal of all the varieties of Maggi instant noodle from markets, tagging them “unsafe” for human consumption. This was indeed a severe blow to manufacturer Nestle India, which has been serving India with a large number of food products for the last 40 years or so.

• Nestle’s line of defence: Nestle India in a statement said that it would definitely withdraw the sales of Maggie noodles in India as per the order issued but continued to maintain it was safe. The company officials also said that giving priority to the trust of the people on Nestle products for the last so many years, they would bring back Maggie on store shelves soon.

• The final outcome: Sure enough, Maggi is now back on retail shelves in select markets, six months after it was banned. Nestle India is rolling out once again Maggie Noodles in 100 towns through 300 distributors, except in eight states where it is still not allowed.

Dairy Milk: Company – Cadbury

Chocolates! Those Cadbury chocolate bars have always been loved by everyone. But much before Maggie, these favourite Indian chocolates also had to face a strict scan by the government and food regulators.

• Worms controversy: In 2003, Cadbury chocolates have to face the wrath of consumers when it was reported that there were worms in its Dairy Milk bars in Maharashtra.

• Action taken: The Maharashtra Food and Drug Administration was quick to respond, and immediately seized the chocolate stocks manufactured at Cadbury’s Pune plant. Sales were also withdrawn on the ground that they were produced under unhygienic conditions and improperly packaged.

• Company’s line of defence: Cadbury India stated that contamination was not possible in the production process but could have resulted during storing and packaging at the retailer’s end.

• The final outcome: In 2004, Cadbury spent a huge amount of money to get imported machinery to ensure better packaging and also roped in Amitabh Bachchan as the brand ambassador to earn the trust of its customers. Cadbury today continues to lead the Indian chocolate market and this could be a perfect case study of a prosperous recovery from a crisis.

Coke-Pepsi: Company – Coca Cola Pvt. Ltd. and PepsiCo

Let’s get to our favourite drinks: coke and pepsi. For all kinds of celebrations, outings, and at homes and offices, these two drinks are always the most essential beverages.

• Pesticide Controversy: In 2003, the Centre for Science and Environment, a NGO in New Delhi, reported that carbonated drinks produced by soft drinks manufacturers in India like as Pepsi and Coke contained pesticides that can cause cancer and a deterioration of the immune system. The report mentioned that the pesticide content in these drinks was found to be much higher than the actual safety standards developed by the Bureau of Indian Standards. Similar allegations were also reported again in 2006. Both the companies were also criticised for having bottling plants in Kerala leading to water pollution, water depletion, thereby causing health issues and affecting agriculture production.

• Government action: Kerala government immediately banned both the companies from making or selling their beverages. In Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh too, the sale of the soft drinks was banned, especially in schools and government offices. Similar bans were announced in Rajasthan and Punjab too.

• Coca Cola and Pepsico’s line of defence: Due to the pesticide allegation, both the rival companies, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola came together for the first time to counter-attack the CSE’s findings. Both the companies maintained that their soft drinks have no health threats, are safe to consume and produced under most stringent European quality standards. PepsiCo officials also announced that the pesticide levels in soft drinks are highly negligible when compared with the permitted levels in tea and other food products.

• Health hazard: Even if we ignore the pesticide factor, the high sugar content in these drinks is itself very bad for health, leading to obesity and diabetes. But still people are consuming these beverages.

• The final outcome: In spite of all allegations and controversies, the Coca-Cola Company and Pepsico, Inc. are dominant players in the soft drinks market in India and overseas. Coke and Pepsi still align themselves with brands, sports, celebrities, and lifestyles that the Indians find very appealing.

Mother Dairy Milk: Company – Mother Dairy

The latest food product that has attracted controversy is our very old Mother Dairy Milk.

• Detergent controversy: In June 2015, the UP Food and Drug Administration reported that detergent was found in the milk samples produced by Mother Dairy.

• Mother Dairy’s line of defence: Mother Dairy denied any adulteration of its milk supplies. The Head of Mother Dairy, Delhi, of Milk, Fruits and Vegetables Section said that all milk produced has to go through four levels of stringent checking at various levels, right from input, processing, dispatches and even distribution at market level. He further said that every milk tanker of Mother Dairy passes a series of 23 stringent quality tests which help in detecting contamination of milk through various sources such as water, urea, detergent, oil, etc. Mother Dairy vehemently denied the allegations.

The list has not yet ended. KFC chicken, Subway sandwich, McDonalds Burger, Haldiram’s aloo bhujia, PepsiCo’s Lay’s potato chips and many such leading brands with their food products have been accused of adulteration and misleading the public through insufficient labelling and wrong claims.

The final outcome

In spite of so many controversies and allegations, these food products and beverages are still ruling the lives of the Indian consumers. In India, the consumers, regulators and the Government are not much too concerned for such controversies as the Indian packaged food and beverages market is still in its evolving phase, unlike Western countries, such allegations are taken too seriously and the food items get banned immediately. Consumers are still not very much aware of the ingredient labels on packaged food as these hardly come under scrutiny. At the most, people are only aware of the green and red dots, denoting vegetarian and non-vegetarian food respectively. The on-going food controversies only lead to a temporary ban and then again these controversial food items are back on the shelves.

But, this should be a wake-up call for all of us to watch carefully what we are eating. Also, all manufacturing companies need to continuously check on their products to ensure they are safe. At the same time, these manufacturing companies should also ensure that their plants, operations, distribution, and products are environmentally and morally sound.