"She doesn't have anything, except Maggi," complained my cousin. "So, that's what I make for her every day." She was talking about her 5-year-old, who has an inbuilt revulsion towards food, with one exception. Shocked at her confession, I warned my cousin that she was doing more harm than good by feeding her child processed food that contained little other than maida and monosodium glutamate (MSG).
That conversation was five years ago.
Today the country is horrified at Maggi being unhealthy. Many are upset that meri Maggi has to go. But quite frankly, I'm tickled. Shouldn't an urban, educated India know the harmful effects of such foods? So then, why this sudden feeling of betrayal by the two-minute promise?
If it wasn't for a random inspection by an enthusiastic food safety inspector, most mommies and daddies would still be packing the easy-to-cook noodles for their kids' midday meal. But the food inspector in Barabanki, who found that Maggi noodles contained seven times the "permissible" limit of lead, has stirred the pot for the company and parents looking for quick fix options.
"Let's face it, Nestlé's defence that it does not add MSG in Maggi noodles is lame, with add being the operative word. It has admitted on record that it uses ingredients that contain glutamate."
Following this, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Kerala, Delhi, Jammu and Kashmir and Gujarat banned the sale of Maggi noodles. Then several retail chains pulled their stock off the shelves. Even the Indian Army (they actually eat Maggi?) stopped selling the product in its canteens. This prompted the Centre to get into action with the Health and Food ministers promising "appropriate action".
The Maggi mess, that began from a district that few in the world would have even have heard of, has had a butterfly effect. Singapore has suspended the sale of Maggi noodles manufactured in India. The global CEO of Nestlé, Paul Bulcke, has had to step in with an assurance that the company "has the same quality standards everywhere in the world." His claims quite the opposite of what Nestlé is stating in South Africa. Nestlé SA's Media Relations Manager Millicent Molete has assured citizens they "do not use the same recipe" used by Nestlé India.
Let's face it, Nestlé's defence that it does not add MSG in Maggi noodles is lame, with add being the operative word. It has admitted on record that it uses ingredients that contain glutamate.
The heat Nestlé is facing today is very similar to what its rival Cadbury faced in the October of 2003. Bang in the midst of festive season, a stockist found worms in a batch of Cadbury Dairy Milk chocolates. The infamous batch number 28F311 led to a major blowback for the company. The sales of its most popular chocolate fell by a third in the festive season. It finally took some serious mending, from changing the wrapper to roping in Amitabh Bachchan as brand ambassador, for Cadbury to rediscover sweet success.
"A study of 15 noodle brands by consumer body CERS shows almost all contain high levels of sodium and fat and are not half as "wholesome" and "healthy" as advertised."
For Nestlé too, this is not the first time its most popular product has found itself in the frying pan. In the past the company has successfully thwarted all "rumours" of wax in its noodles and non-vegetarian ingredients in the Maggi noodles tastemaker.
But today it is nestled deep in controversy. Maggi has little choice but to bid adieu, 33 years after it arrived in India and changed food habits.
In 1982 when Nestlé introduced instant noodles, our parents couldn't believe food could be cooked in two minutes flat. It was almost magical. For children back then, the catchy jingle was the main draw. Like all kids, I too wanted my mother to pack Maggi for my school tiffin. I tugged at her sari pallu and said that I would take nothing other than Maggi noodles for our class picnic. That afternoon, as I opened my tiffin box and took the first bite, something was triggered within me. The noodles were cold, stuck together like glue and the sweet-sour flavour made my stomach churn. The experience was nothing like the warmth of slurping noodles, as advertised on television. I've had an aversion to instant noodles since (much to my benefit), only later to realise that they have nothing but empty calories.
But setting personal preferences aside, the fact that one brand is being singled out seems unfair and rather illogical. A study of 15 noodle brands by consumer body CERS shows almost all contain high levels of sodium and fat and are not half as "wholesome" and "healthy" as advertised.
Will these dozen odd instant noodle makers come under fire, or will they watch from the sidelines as Maggi noodles is grilled? After all, we are talking about a cut-throat Rs 4000 crore noodle industry with several giant players in the ring, each looking to dethrone Maggi.
Nestlé, on its part, will need months of brand building to change consumer perception and bring back Maggi. And for the 30-somethings getting nostalgic over their "survival food", I ask -- will you feed it to your child again?