Beloved noodles banned in India over lead levels
Many states pull Nestle’s Maggi packets off store shelves after testing samples.
MUMBAI, India — India’s capital on Wednesday banned the sale of a beloved instant noodle after tests determined that samples of the product contained higher than legal levels of lead.
New Delhi joined more than a dozen Indian states that in recent days have recalled or ordered tests on Maggi noodles, a popular brand manufactured by the Swiss conglomerate Nestle, after samples were shown to contain high amounts of lead as well as monosodium glutamate, or MSG, an additive not listed on its packaging.
The Delhi government asked Nestle to withdraw all Maggi noodles from stores in the capital within 15 days, the Press Trust of India reported. At least four additional states — Punjab in the north and Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Telangana in the south — ordered the testing of samples.
Although there were no immediate reports of Indians falling ill after consuming the product, many stores were pulling the familiar redand-yellow packages off their shelves as a preemptive measure. India’s largest retailer, Future Group, said it had temporarily withdrawn the product “in the in- terest of consumer sentiment.”
Billions of Maggi packets are sold every year in more than 100 countries, but perhaps nowhere are they more cherished than in India, where the piping-hot, ready-in-two-minutes noodles are a comfort food that spans generations and regions.
“We call it the third staple of India. There’s rice, wheat and Maggi,” said Kiran Khalap, co-founder of Chlorophyll, a brand consulting firm.
“It’s something that children have grown up with, students have grown up with and bachelors, especially, have grown up with. To suddenly have this news, it’s like a very trusted and close friend betraying you.”
Nestle, which had sales of $1.5 billion in India last year, as much as one-fifth of which analysts say were Maggi noodles, has said its lab tests have shown the product to be safe, with lead levels within permissible limits.
Under Indian laws, the maximum amount of lead allowed in food products is 2.5 parts per million. Tests on Maggi samples from the northern state of Uttar Pradesh in April found the lead content to be nearly seven times higher.
Indian food safety regulations also prohibit MSG — a flavor enhancer that has been linked to health issues in pregnant women and newborns — from being added to certain products, including dry pasta and noodles.
Authorities in the western states of Maharashtra and Goa said Wednesday that they had not detected high lead levels in Maggi samples. In Mumbai, Maharashtra’s capital, shopkeepers said the noodles were still selling, but they worried about future sales.
Kiran Ghosnani, who runs a shop in the middleclass Mahim section of Mumbai, said he would not order more Maggi noodles until more tests determined the product to be safe.
“Business-wise, it would be risky to ask for more stock,” Ghosnani said.
The news has fallen like a weight on many Indians, who associate Maggi noodles variously with college dorms, childhood treats, sick days and homebound afternoons during the annual monsoon rains. To adapt to changing tastes, the brand in recent years has introduced f lavors of spice packs and wheat noodles that appeal to increasingly health-conscious Indians.
“I did not expect this from a brand like Maggi,” said Suhas Kavthekar, a 63year-old retired bank worker in Mumbai.
When his sons were in ele- mentary school, they and other children in the apartment block would want Maggi noodles after playing in the neighborhood, he recalled. The kids bought Maggi packets on their way home from school, mimicking the brand’s familiar jingle.
“Playing in the colony and then pouncing on Maggi was a ritual for these kids,” Kavthekar said. “And we parents shared it with our kids. It was a means to bond with them, to eat Maggi together on the same plate.
“It was a shock to hear those stories about them and I will definitely not eat them now.”
The elevated lead levels were discovered by state health inspectors, a victory for a young food safety system widely seen to be illequipped to handle an evergrowing roster of eateries and ready-made foods in the country of 1.2 billion.
The previous major food safety scare in India — in 2006, when Coca-Cola and Pepsi soft drinks were found to contain pesticides — was prompted by a report by the Center for Science and the Environment, a think tank.
“The very fact that a state implementing agency has found this is good and we welcome it,” said Amit Khurana, head of the center’s food safety program.
“In this case, the laws were in place. There is still a lot of scope for improvement in monitoring at the state level.”
‘We call it the third staple of India. There’s rice, wheat and Maggi.... It’s like a very trusted and close friend betraying you.’
— Kiran Khalap,
PACKETS OF MAGGI NOODLES hang at a shop in New Delhi. Officials said they found MSG and excessive levels of lead in samples of the instant noodles. Nestle said its own lab tests showed the product was safe.