Foodmaker Nestle scored a major victory late Monday night when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted marketing approval for the company’s Maggi noodles within the U.S. The U.S. joins six other countries in allowing the sale of the two-minute instant snack noodles, which had been tested by the regulator for unsafe levels of lead. Most notably, India’s Food Safety and Standards Authority (FSSAI) issued a June 5th ban on the product, which is manufactured in India, after a test revealed unsafe lead levels in a shipment along with the regulator citing labeling violations as well. Although Indian authorities in one lab found five shipments to be tested as safe, a subsequent test in a different facility determined that shipment to contain an unacceptable amount of lead. Despite the ban, an Indian judge ruled later in the month that the noodles could still be exported to countries that permit the product. The U.S. joins Canada, the U.K, and Australia, among others in allowing the sale and consumption of Maggi noodles. The ban has driven Nestle to declare a financial loss in its Indian operations, and led to serious questions about the country’s food safety standards. House of Spices, the U.S. importer for the noodles, posted on its official Facebook page Monday night that “The FDA has tested several shipments of Maggi noodles from India for lead content. Finding no unsafe lead levels, FDA released the noodles for sale in the United States. Therefore consumers can continue to buy Maggi noodles with confidence.”
In addition to the regulatory testing by several countries, Nestle has stated that the company itself has tested 2,700 samples including 1,100 at independent labs, with none of the samples containing unacceptable levels of lead. Regardless of the FDA’s determination, Maggi noodles will likely remain banned in India due to a dispute over the product’s MSG labeling. Nestle insists that the product does not contain MSG, despite the FSSAI stating that testing in its labs prove the contrary. Nestle believes that the tests are instead detecting glutamate, which the company asserts is naturally occurring in hydrolysed groundnut protein, onion powder and wheat flour. Nestle India experienced a 20 percent sales decline, and a roughly $50 million loss in the quarter ending June 30th, largely stemming from the Maggi noodle scare and the ban. In response to the ban and its financial consequences, Nestle filed a lawsuit June 11th in the Bombay High Court against the FSSAI challenging the ban. The FDA approval, along with the approval from counterparts in other advanced-economy countries should add ammunition for Nestle’s case. One major point of contention is that Nestle wanted to the test the product, which contains the noodles and a separate flavor packet, together in a heated finished product like it is typically consumed. Regulators instead tested each individual item separately.
Also in focus are India’s food safety standards; whose credibility has been challenged in the past. The FSSAI did not even come into existence until 2011, and India had no national food safety authority prior to 2008. The regulators themselves concede that the country does not have sufficient equipment for complex testing, and often sources more advanced testing to independent laboratories. Despite food-safety having a low priority within India’s governmental structure, nearly 7,500 people died in the country from food-related poisoning, nearly one per-hour. This is actually a marked improvement from the epidemic in previous decades. Still, data from the FDA shows that more food imports were rejected by the U.S. from India than any other country in the first half of 2015. Other international giants like Coca-Cola, Cadbury prior to joining Mondelez International, and KFC, have fought similar food-safety allegations in the past.
Economic Times (India) – ET News Bureau
Food Quality News – Joe Whitworth
Livemint – Sounak Mitra
Wall Street Journal – Preetika Rana