In the disorienting mayhem surrounding Maggi noodles’ alleged contamination, it is the consumer who seems to be caught in the crossfire, with little or no voting rights, apart from bland ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers to media questions.
On Wednesday, Delhi Health Minister Satyendra Jain announced an immediate "15-day ban" on sale of Maggi noodles and asked Nestle India Ltd to recall current stocks from the capital in that time and make available new stock, which will be allowed on shelves only after proper checks.
With varying quantities of misinformation or unconfirmed information flooding popular media outlets, how does the consumer separate the grain from the chaff?
In a country typified by lack of transparency in almost all areas of public services, analysts believe there finally needs to be a single unified verdict on issues impacting public safety. The multiplicity of state governments and their respective standards, coupled with a lack of consumer awareness on food safety, have created a foggy environment in which the end-user is left to distinguish the right from wrong, they note.
"Unlike in the US, India has no body like the FDA to speak for the nation," says Sandeep Puri, Associate Professor of Marketing at IMT, Ghaziabad.
"The Food Safety and Standard Authority of India (FSSAI) is doing a fine job in laying out guidelines, but what about implementation? Manufacturers and consumers across states need to hear not from state governments, but from an impartial, FDA-like body on what is truly going on. Transparency is completely missing as of now; one simply does not know what or who to trust," he adds.
[Quality control is not a sporadic war drill; it is as much a ritual as Maggi is to millions of Indians.]
Consumer education about food ingredients is also weak, he notes. "Indians need to exercise their right to access more information on the foods they consume. Traceability and ingredient quality checks are terms Indians as a rule are not very familiar with."
It is not the first time multinational majors have been drawn into allegations of business malpractices. Among several other instances in recent years, in 2006, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) undertook a nationwide study of nearly a dozen soft drink brands and found pesticide residues in all samples. It took the health ministry until 2009 to notify standards for pesticides in carbonated water. But these standards are meaningless; there is no methodology available to test for pesticides. CSE is currently engaged with Bureau of Indian Standards to put in place a methodology for testing pesticides.
In each case, however, the stories have died gradual deaths, following a few days of rapid-fire action in mainstream media.
"In cases such as this, when there is rapid erosion of public trust — either for good reason or for concocted charges — brands need to communicate to their customers. In the past, Cadbury’s and Coca Cola deployed their brand icons Amitabh Bachchan and Aamir Khan, respectively, to reinstate faith," Puri says.
For a brand that is firmly embedded in the Indian food consumption graph, with everyday users ranging from millions of kids to backpackers, army personnel to adventure enthusiasts, and everyone in between, is it game over? The fact is, for a company like Nestle, the streets of a country like India are paved with gold; commiting brand harakiri would not be part of the strategy. On the other hand, someone in the system has been caught napping, and at more than one point.
Regardless of a final verdict, there is an immediate moral of the story for all companies whose products impact consumer health: quality control is not a sporadic war drill; it is as much a ritual as Maggi is to millions of Indians.