Noodle watch

Print edition : July 10, 2015
Countrywide probes into the presence of contaminants and flavour enhancers in various noodle brands have placed the popular snack under the microscope.

For thirty years instant noodles remained a popular snack in India, where it had grown into a market worth around Rs 4,300 crore as of 2013, but the latest controversy surrounding Nestle’s Maggi brand has dented the popularity of the processed food product. Extremely high levels of lead were found in the brand, which has enjoyed a dominant position in the Indian instant noodle landscape.

The probes and bans that followed in various States have brought into focus the state of food testing and safety in India, the economics of instant noodles (in India and in other markets), the growth in sales volume and value of processed foods, the enormity of the market and the extent of its untapped potential in the country.

Global popularity

Data from the Japan-based World Instant Noodles Association show that India was the fourth-largest consumer in 2014, with 534 crore packets/cups, behind Japan with 550 crore, Indonesia with 1,343 crore and China, the world leader with a whopping 4,440 crore. Vietnam, the United States and South Korea were other major consumers.

But in terms of per capita consumption, countries with much lower populations such as South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia and even Nepal rank much higher than India, which is an indicator of the untapped market that exists in the country. The data also demonstrate the mercurial growth of and the huge global demand for instant noodles.

FSSAI role

The ban on Maggi chiefly rests on the high levels of lead found in samples collected in Uttar Pradesh, which had 17.2 parts per million (ppm) of lead, almost seven times higher than the permitted level. The maximum lead allowed in packaged food products is 2.5 ppm, according to the standards prescribed by India’s regulatory authority, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI).

Set up in 2011, the authority has been conducting sample examinations and detecting adulterations across food products over the past five years. The findings are distressing. In 2011-12, 64,593 samples were tested of which 8,247 were found to be not confirming to the standards. A year later, the number of cases of adulteration rose to 10,380 out of 69,949 samples, followed by 13,571 out of 72,200 in 2013-14.

The number of prosecutions launched has been rising every year, as have convictions, painting a grim picture of food safety in the country. The FSSAI would do well to release more details on the nature of adulteration and the food products involved.

Lead effects

So, what exactly does lead do? According to the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency and that country’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, lead toxicity can affect every organ system and blood lead levels above permissible limits lead to a host of harmful effects on health, especially children, who are more vulnerable as they tend to absorb a higher amount of ingested lead from the gastrointestinal tract than adults.

In children, lead poisoning can damage the brain and the nervous system and lead to behavioural problems, anaemia, liver and kidney damage, hearing loss, hyperactivity and developmental delays.

Children are also more susceptible to the adverse neurological and developmental effects of lead. Iron or calcium deficiencies, commonly found in them, may facilitate lead absorption and worsen its toxic effects.

Excessive lead intake in childhood can lead to health effects later in life, including kidney trouble, hypertension and reproductive problems. There is no gainsaying how many children in India have been adversely affected by the presence of abnormally high levels of lead in noodles. Indian makers of foods such as instant noodles target children, often through misleading advertisements claiming nutritional benefits.

In adults, lead poisoning can lead to persistent fatigue, irritability, loss of appetite, nerve damage, higher blood pressure, hearing and vision impairment and reproductive problems such as decreased sperm count.

The entire controversy is a reminder to civil society of the need for stronger food safety measures, a stronger regulatory authority and a proactive government that keeps corporates in check by holding them to high standards.