Why is India suing Nestlé?

Two months after banning on Maggi noodles for allegedly high levels of lead, the Indian government now seeks damages from Nestlé for 'unfair trade practices.' 

Ashwini Bhatia/AP
Packets of Maggi instant noodles are displayed at a tea stall in Dharmsala, India, on Aug. 12, 2015.

India is suing the Swiss food giant Nestlé for nearly $100 million, two months after banning the company's Maggi noodles for what Indian officials said were dangerously high levels of lead.

The government announced Wednesday that it has filed a suit against Nestlé, seeking damages from the Indian arm of the company for “unfair trade practices,” AFP reported. 

Nestlé expressed its "disappointment" over the complaint in a statement, saying in part, "Nestlé India maintains the highest standards of food quality and safety in the manufacture of all its products."

This case represents the first time India's Consumer Affairs Ministry has charged a company before the quasi-judicial National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission, reports the Economic Times of India. 

"For the first time, the government has filed a class action suit against Nestlé India to send a strong message to companies that they cannot sell sub-standard products in the country and put consumers' health at risk," said an unnamed Economic Times source.

In their petition, the ministry charged that Nestlé misled consumers with claims that Maggi instant noodles were healthy, and noted that their packaging claimed "no added MSG," but that government officials found levels of monosodium glutamate well in excess of legal limits.

Nestlé was at the center of India's worst food scare in a decade in April, when India's Food and Drug Administration officials, performing routine food testing, found that lead levels in some Maggi instant noodle soup samples were about seven times higher than statutory limits.

Lead is harmful when ingested, especially for children, according to the US National Institute of Health. 

On April 30, FDA officials ordered a recall of some 200,000 batches of the noodles.

In subsequent weeks, several Indian states banned Maggi noodles for allegedly containing unsafe levels of lead and MSG. In early June, federal authorities said Nestlé had failed to comply with its obligations under India’s food safety laws and ordered Nestlé to withdraw nine versions of its noodles from sale, nationwide.

Nestlé, which controlled 80 percent of India's instant noodles market, agreed to destroy $50 million worth of noodles in response to the federal complaints.

Since the scandal broke in India, Nestlé has constantly reiterated that its noodles are safe. In addition, food safety authorities in several countries including the UK and Canada have said Maggi noodles imported from India are safe to consume.

On its website, Nestlé wrote:

Nestlé India has tested more than 2,700 product samples of Maggi noodles, including 1,100 samples at independent accredited labs in India and abroad. These tests represent more than 165 million ... packets of noodles in total. These tests found that levels of lead in the products were within the food safety limits specified by the Indian authorities, which is why we are saying the products are safe for consumption.

Maggi soup rose to popularity in the 1980s and is now Nestlé's fastest-selling product in India, accounting for about $240 million in annual sales. The instant noodles are especially popular with school and college students as Nestlé's "two-minute" advertising campaign stresses the ease of preparing the food.

The Maggi scandal has forced Indian food regulatory authorities to discuss the need for improved food safety procedures in the country.

In mid-June, Dr. V. Prakash, chair of the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India’s scientific panel, told Indian Express that the country needs "sweeping reforms" in its food safety infrastructure, including personnel.

"It is time we wake up and work on a science-based approach," he said. "If we have periodical evaluation in aviation for pilots, why not for analysts who test our food?"

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.