Sunday, June 7, 2015

Maggi Noodle Musings

The Maggi noodle saga playing out in the Indian media has been closely watched by the middle class and Indian diaspora. After a dozen or so states in India banned Maggi noodles, the central government finally stepped in with a national ban. (WSJ)

Even this account is slightly perplexing since The Independent in an article says “the reason for the ban is, the “concerns of excess lead levels,”  and adds

“The food company said in a statement that the noodles were completely safe, but explained that “recent developments and unfounded concerns about the product have led to an environment of confusion for the consumer. . . . It said that, due to the confusion, it had voluntarily "decided to withdraw the product off the shelves, despite the product being safe".

I am not even going to speculate over what a safe level of lead in food is. The government and media are sure to sort that out. And for those in the west wondering what the bruhaha over ban of Maggie in India symbolizes? It is perhaps akin to banning Pizzas from American college dorms. The outcry is perhaps similar to the one seen in Britain when the government first tried banning newspapers to wrap the unofficial national dish of Fish and chips.

Maggi and I go back to the mid nineteen eighties while I was growing up in India. Nestle made initial inroads by creating a market where it didn’t exist by smartly catching the young. My first taste came from a couple of packets I got at school - Kendriya Vidyalaya R.K Puram - in Delhi, circa 1984-85. Maggi also contributed to a few of my childhood memories by giving away t-shirts, games and other swags in exchange for used wrappers. Smart move on their part. My generation that grew up in middle-class-India, and the ones to follow were hooked by Maggi!

In the decades since I first ate Maggi, it has become an Indian cultural icon; and one can argue the brand ushered in the Ready-to-eat phenomena in India. Just a few examples:

  • For young working couple and those on the move, it is a practical alternative to eating out at an (questionably hygienic) dhaba or roadside eatery. All one needs is a kettle of boiling water and in a few minutes a ‘meal’ is ready to eat.
  • On the Indian matrimonial websites, brides-to-be proudly claim their culinary “achievements” include making a cup of chai or a plate of Maggie noodles!
  • This is also a quintessential Indian export for the diaspora. Local Patel brothers and Indian grocers across the US stock inexpensive Maggi and packets of Maggi noodles are among the must-carry for young Indians coming to study at American campuses or to work on H1-Visas.

Reading accounts in the Indian media, I am slightly amused. I am also left scratching my head wondering if this is just a proverbial storm in a clich├ęd Maggie kettle? Even if we give the benefit of doubt to those crying for Nestle’s pound of flesh, logic dictates that “excessive” amounts of lead-or-any-other-chemical in a ready-to-eat food will be harmful only if eaten in excess.  Now, those eating Maggi as a staple daily dinner should be concerned, lead or not!

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