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‘No added MSG’: How labelling cooked Maggi’s goose

maggi1The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) identified three problems with Nestle’s Maggi range of products: lead levels higher than the permissible quantity of 2.5 ppm (parts per million); misleading labelling on the package that stated “No added MSG”; and release of “Maggi Oats Masala Noodle with Tastemaker” without product approval.

As of June 12, 18 States (including Delhi) have banned Maggi. Four have banned the product on account of excessive lead content, five cited presence of MSG as the reason, while the remaining nine have done so either on the basis of media reports or in response to FSSAI recommendations. Of the 12 States that have not instituted a ban, some have found the product safe for consumption and sent samples for further testing.

Food companies typically use MSG as a flavour enhancer. While scientific opinion is still divided on whether MSG is harmful to human health, from a regulatory standpoint, there is no requirement that noodles should have no MSG in them. [It does so, however, for meat — 500 mg a kg — which has no bearing on this case.]

By the Food Safety and Standards Regulations, 2011, framed by the FSSAI, MSG is permitted for use as seasoning. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), too, considers the addition of MSG in foods to be “generally recognised as safe”. MSG is also present in various products such as soya sauce and soups. Yet Assam, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh have cited the presence of MSG as the reason for banning Maggi.

Moreover, Nestle claims that it does not add MSG to its noodles. The real problem surrounding MSG, by the order released by the FSSAI to Nestle, is about “mislabelling” and “misbranding”.

Maggi noodles sold in India contain hydrolysed groundnut protein, onion powder and wheat flour, all of which contain glutamate. MSG is a sodium salt of glutamate. The glutamate in MSG is chemically indistinguishable from glutamate present in food proteins. So if the lab reports are detecting MSG, it is probably due to natural glutamate, Nestle says.

By FSSAI regulations, foods with any ingredient that naturally contains MSG cannot add a label “No added MSG” on their packaging, as this could give a misleading impression that the product contains no MSG. And this is where Nestle went wrong.

Nestle’s “No added MSG” label is in violation of the FSS (Packaging & Labelling) Regulations, 2011. The company has now agreed to remove the label from the packet. But given that, with or without this label, the actual quantum of MSG in Maggi is not going to change — the MSG-driven bans would seem to have less to do with food safety than a consumer’s right to know.

But Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and Delhi did find excessive levels of lead in the product. And Karnataka, Uttarakhand, Goa, Punjab, Telangana, Haryana and West Bengal found the lead content to be within prescribed limits, not in violation of safety norms. High lead content is a health hazard because lead poisoning, especially in children, can affect cognitive development.

Nestle argues that lead testing should be done for the final product — after dropping the noodles in water and adding the tastemaker. It claims that this is the method the company follows. The FSSAI, however, insists on measuring lead levels separately — in the noodles and in the tastemaker. The excessive quantity of lead, reported in tests conducted by the State authorities, is for the tastemaker alone.

The FSSAI says that since the noodles and the tastemaker are present in separate packages, the prescribed standards should be applied independently. Besides, since the final product contains water, it would be difficult to establish Nestle’s liability since lead levels in the water would vary depending on the source.

Given that the testing methodologies of Nestle and FSSAI are different, the results may not necessarily be comparable.

Interestingly, Uttar Pradesh, which is where it all began, is yet to ban the product. About 17.2 ppm of lead was reported in a sample from the State — seven times the permitted level. But the State government is still awaiting reports from the U.P. Food Safety and Drug Administration. Though Goa’s health regulator did not find any harmful content in the product, it went ahead with the ban anyway, taking a cue from other States.

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