Why The Maggi Affair has angered and enthralled India

New Delhi, India (NI) – Hitting the headlines of every Indian daily, for a few days now has been – no, you could never have guessed, L’Affaire Maggi. After samples of Maggi noodles, manufactured in March 2014, were found to contain unacceptably high levels of lead and monosodium glutamate (MSG), the instant noodles brand has come under scrutiny by various state governments.

The iconic Maggi noodles brand is a huge favourite with middle-class Indian kids, their parents and grandparents. Bollywood’s reigning film stars have been urging families to eat Maggi, pushing it as cool, delicious, nutritious and healthy. The doting designer mums who produce this two-minute magic meal are impeccably clad and glamorous, the ultimate modern women who emerge from their perfect designer kitchens with not a hair out of place. No sweaty, harried, hot and bothered women here. The perfect mum produces the perfect meal, instantly, with élan. More ordinary, normal women are persuaded that this is the ideal. A two-minute magic meal. Kids are ecstatic. The mums have an easy way out of the kitchen.

Mian, mien or mein covers a multitude of Chinese noodles. It has been shortened to ‘mee’ in Singapore and Malaysia. A confession: I’ve used Maggi myself, years ago, when in a hurry, because my kids loved it. I would always add meat and vegetables, ‘messing up’ the perfect ‘mee’ to make it a tad healthier. Maggi mee has even appeared in restaurants, and is popular all over Southeast Asia. It is tasty and addictive. The MSG – dubbed taste enhancer on many product labels – ensures that. But how did the great exposé happen? I wondered.

The truth or the mystery behind why this product was singled out has not yet been revealed. But for a state as backward as Uttar Pradesh to have protested the ‘unacceptably high levels of lead and MSG’ makes people wonder how bad the situation really is. Indian consumers, en masse, have stopped buying Maggi. And state after state is banning the product and calling for lab tests to check the lead and MSG levels.

It is a well-documented fact that transnational corporations are far more careless about quality control when it comes to ‘third world’ countries. Let’s drop the politically correct ‘developing’ nations bit. That’s the fault of our governments and politicians. We, Asians, Africans and South Americans, should be more vigilant. Life on third world continents is cheap. And the powers at the top don’t really give a damn so long as the profits pour in and their coffers are filled.

The rise and fall of Maggi will come as an enormous shock to Nestlé (which has owned the Maggi brand since 1947). I hope some good comes out of it. I hope the giant food corporations stop taking poor countries for granted and step up quality control and health and safety measures. Even if they don’t care about the quality, they care about their profits. And this colossal shock to Nestlé’s brand name should act as a wake-up call to other food producers.

We, the people, globally, need more stringent measures to ensure our kids are not slow-poisoned by lead, MSG, chemicals, genetically modified fruit and veg and other cancer-causing or disease-creating foods. We should demand the right to have stricter food labelling so that we know what we are feeding our families.

Maggi noodles, owned by Nestle Image Source: "Singen - Julius-Bührer-Straße - Maggi 04 ies" by Frank Vincentz -

Maggi noodles, owned by Nestle
Image Source: “Singen – Julius-Bührer-Straße – Maggi 04 ies” by Frank Vincentz –

The hue and cry over Maggi has a silver lining. The entire country is up in arms, infuriated that they have been suckered into feeding a harmful, potentially dangerous product to their kids. It was time we woke up. I sincerely hope something good emerges from L’Affaire Maggi.

Written by Mari Marcel Thekaekara for the New Internationalist.