Beloved noo­dles banned in In­dia over lead lev­els

Many states pull Nes­tle’s Maggi pack­ets off store shelves af­ter test­ing sam­ples.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Shashank Ben­gali and Parth M.N. shashank.ben­gali@la­times.com Parth M.N. is a spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent.

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,

brand­ing con­sul­tant

Tser­ing Top­gyal As­so­ci­ated Press

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.

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