Returned months later to the north Indian food inspector who first sent the samples—after a detour via Shimla in the Himalayas—the consignment eventually reached a laboratory in Kolkata, where tests found seven times the legal levels of lead.
From there, what began as a minor labeling dispute that according to a local magistrate could have been settled with a $400 fine, spiraled into Nestle’s worst public relations crisis to date in India.
The scare over Maggi instant noodles, one of India’s most popular snacks, has gripped increasingly health-conscious consumers.
It has also highlighted shortcomings in the country’s food safety network.
Uttar Pradesh, where the crisis began, has a population the size of Brazil’s but the state’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has only five laboratories, or one per 40 million people.
Asked by the central Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) to run checks, FDA officials in another state did not know the lead limit, FSSAI head Yudhvir Singh Malik said.
“We need to strengthen the food safety infrastructure,” Malik told Reuters.
But the FSSAI has nonetheless stood by its testing, saying in a report on Friday they had “overwhelming evidence” that Maggi noodles were “unsafe and hazardous.” India has also filed for damages from Nestle. Regulators have not said how the product might have become contaminated.
The Swiss-based company has challenged the test findings and stresses its snack is safe. In its representations to the FSSAI, Nestle said the sample could have been contaminated during its lengthy transit, although it gave no evidence that was the case.
Nestle’s woes began last year, on the eve of Holi—India’s spring festival of colors and a time of indulgence for many—when inspectors were on the lookout for adulterated foods at retailers in Barabanki, a town of 150,000 in Uttar Pradesh.
“That is the time for aggressive checking of adulteration on food products—particularly snacks,” Barabanki food safety officer Sanjay Singh told Reuters at his office.
Inspectors picked up samples of Maggi noodles, sold in an instantly recognizable bright yellow package for as little as a dozen rupees (under 20 U.S. cents), from a local supermarket.
The samples were sent to a state laboratory in Gorakhpur, which reported on April 24 that labeling containing the words “No added MSG” violated Indian regulations.
According to a local magistrate, the same Gorakhpur lab had found monosodium glutamate in Maggi noodles in 2013. The retailer who sold the noodles paid a fine of 25,000 rupees ($400) for a similar violation. That was the end of the matter.
Nestle appealed against the April 2014 ruling, however, stating that the noodles contained MSG as the result of a natural process.
“Nestle was apparently over-confident about their product, otherwise the company would not have preferred an appeal and instead paid up the penalty of 25,000 rupees,” said Yogeshwar Ram Mishra, a Barabanki district magistrate.
Lost In The Post
Nestle paid 1,000 rupees to have the sample from the Barabanki supermarket tested at the Central Food Laboratory in Kolkata, a government referral lab. It was sent by government post only to be returned two months later from Shimla, said local food safety officer Singh.
When the Kolkata lab presented its results in a report dated April 7—more than a year after the samples were first taken—as well as confirming the violation of labeling rules it said the sample had tested positive for lead.
Nestle said it would be inappropriate to comment on the details of the tests. But its arguments challenging the findings were presented in an eight-page notice published by the FSSAI on Friday that ordered the withdrawal of Maggi noodles.