Friday 22 May 2015

The story of Maggi Noodles, Monosodium Glutamate (MSG), Lead and Umami

Why in news?
Times of India newspaper recently reported that Samples of Maggi collected from Uttar Pradesh (UP) contained added MSG (Monosodium Glutamate), also known as Ajinomoto, and Lead was multiple times the permissible quantity. So Lucknow's  Food Safety and Drug Administration has now started inquiry and written to the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) in New Delhi seeking to cancel the licence for Maggi". Now Maharashtra and Gujarat have also sent the samples for testing. 
What is MSG? Is it harmful? What is Umami? Read ahead to know more.

It is commonly known as Ajinomoto. It is a taste enhancer and is generally used in Chinese food. MSG is a sodium salt of Glutamic Acid which is one of the most abundant naturally occurring non essential amino acid. It is generally soluble in water and and stable under food processing conditions. 
MSG is used in the food industry as a flavour enhancer with an umami taste which intensifies the meaty, savoury flavour of food, as naturally occurring glutamate does in foods such as stews and meat soups. Umami is one of the five basic tastes (together with sweet, sour, bitter and salty). MSG is found in tomoatoes, Parmesan (a hard, dry cheese used chiefly in grated form, especially on Italian dishes including Pizza etc. ), potatoes, mushrooms and other vegetables and fruits
Umami taste must be differentiated from saltiness. People taste umami through receptors for glutamate, commonly found in its salt form as the food additive (MSG). For that reason, scientists consider umami to be distinct from saltiness.
Some harmful effects of Ajinomoto, when consumed in more than permitted quantity, include:
  1. Headaches which can also develop into a migraine that can cause severe problems. 
  2. Nerves are also affected with repeated consumption of MSG and it also might lead to numbness, tingling or burning sensations in the face and neck. 
  3. People often feel drowsiness and weakness too. 
  4. Neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s and multiple sclerosis are also associated with Ajinomoto. 
  5. Problems to Heart: 
    1. Can result in fluttering heartbeats, chest pains and cardiac arrests. 
  6. Not good for women and infant: Sterility
    1. It has often been said that a pregnant lady should avoid foods containing MSG.
  7. Also, all food items containing MSG carry a warning that they are unsuitable for infants. 
  8. Some other health effects of Ajinomoto include 
    1. high blood pressure, 
    2. abdominal problems, 
    3. thyroid dysfunctions, 
    4. type 2 diabetes, 
    5. obesity, 
    6. asthma, 
    7. hormonal imbalance, 
    8. autism, 
    9. food allergies and
    10. Retina damage. 
But all above is till not proven 100% scientifically and there is more of anecdotal proof and evidence of experience of few. Health effects of MSG are discussed world over. Though the verdict is not clear yet, the fact that it is so much in discussion cannot be ignored. These concerns cannot be said to be baseless. 

Nestle India and Maggi India denied to have added anything like MSG and said that it might have come from a natural source. 
High level of Lead presence can lead to severe mental and physical impairment according to doctors and nutritionists. 

NDTV has reported:
"The test conducted at Kolkata's National Food Laboratories proves the company's claims of not adding MSG is false," said a food inspector at Barabanki, Uttar Pradesh. Lab says level of lead is 17.2 ppm where as permissible limit is 2.5 ppm

Maggi says following:

Rules for instant noodles like Maggi under FSSAI
  • According to Food Safety and Standards Rules, 2011, MSG, a “flavour enhancer”, should not be added to food for infants below 12 months.
  • So it is not permitted in many food items like  “Pastas and noodles (only dried products)”, but is allowed in the seasoning used for noodles and pastas.

Instant noodles like Maggi are identified under food category code 6.4.3, which includes “pre-cooked pastas and noodles and like products” that are “pre-gelatinised, heated and dried prior to sale”. These categories of food are governed by Codex international standard 249, standards of food safety recognised by WHO. 
Are brand ambassadors culpable too?
  • Food Safety and Standards Act (FSSA), 2006 is silent about the responsibility of the brand ambassador.

Source - ET
  • Sections 24 and 53 in the 2006 Act deal specifically with advertisements.
    • Section 24(1) says in general terms that “no advertisement shall be MADE of any food which is misleading or deceiving or contravenes the provisions of this Act, the rules and regulations made there under.” 
      • It is not clear that whether the word 'made' here is related to relay of advertisement on TV channel or whether it is actual making of the advertisement by the brand ambassadors.
    • 24(2)says that “no person shall engage himself in any unfair trade practice for purpose of promoting the sale…” 
      • This clause does not specify who the “person” mentioned in it is, thus, making the ambit of the provision pliable.
    • Statutory objectives of the FSSAI is to “ensure availability of safe and wholesome food for human consumption” and it makes the following liable for violations
      • promoter, 
      • manufacturer, 
      • packer, 
      • wholesaler, 
      • distributor, 
      • seller
      • ‘manager’ of a food business outlet
        • But it does not have specific mention of the words 'brand ambassador'
  • Section 3 (1)(b)
    • Definition of the term ‘advertisement’  to mean 
      • “any audio or visual publicity, representation or pronouncement made by means of any light, sound, smoke, gas, print, electronic media, internet or website and includes through any notice, circular, label, wrapper, invoice or other documents.”

Consumers’ claim
Brand Ambassadors have a duty of care. They are paid huge money to use their persona or voice to make the public purchase a brand. Don't the Consumers enjoy a tortious claim against them for using their highly commercially exploitative rights to mislead the public? But then there is also a question of brand ambassador doing his act in good faith. 
In short, it is difficult to say without SC judgement that ambassadors can be liable. But, if they had the knowledge according to the experts, they can be held liable. 
Update: FIR ordered against Amitabh Bachan, Madhuri Dixit and Preity Zinta for the same.

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