New Delhi: It was Sanjay Singh, a food inspector at the Uttar Pradesh government’s Food Safety and Drug Administration, who spotted the label that claimed “no added MSG (monosodium glutamate)” on the bright-yellow packets of Maggi noodles in March 2014 during one of his routine raids on retail outlets. A PhD in organic chemistry, Singh picked up a sample and sent it to the state laboratory at Gorakhpur for testing. The result that came a few weeks later was positive—that particular sample of Maggi noodles had MSG. Samples of Maggi noodles were then sent to the Central Food Laboratory in Kolkata in June 2014. The results that came after almost one year in April 2015 read: “MSG: Present and Lead: 17.2ppm (parts per million)”. The amount of lead found was over 1,000 times more than what Nestle India Ltd had claimed.
The Uttar Pradesh food safety commissioner sent a formal notice to Nestle seeking clarification on presence of MSG and lead in Maggi samples. The company did mail its response along with its internal monitoring documents on 5 May 2015, but did not take any proactive step to counter any possible aftershock. On 7 May, there was a small news item on the episode in one of the Hindi newspapers in Uttar Pradesh.
Still, Nestle did not react. It never thought the news could lead to an estimated half a billion-dollar loss for the company (including erosion of brand value) that would shake the Swiss multinational and that the subject would be debated at length in television studios.
Nestle failed to gauge the depth of the crisis even after national newspapers started writing about it. It did not issue any statement till 21 May. And in its first official statement, it said there was “no order to recall Maggi noodles being sold” and the popular instant noodle was “safe to eat”.
Interestingly, Nestle could have settled the issue according to the law under the regulations with the Uttar Pradesh food safety department by paying a penalty of Rs3 lakh as the Maggi sample contained MSG even though the pack said it didn’t, making it a punishable offence. However, Yudhvir Singh Malik, chief executive officer of Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) at that time, stepped in on 25 May.
On 5 June 2015, the day FSSAI asked Nestle to recall Maggi noodles, the company’s global chief executive Paul Bulcke met the regulators, and addressed the media in New Delhi. Bulcke said: “This is a matter of clarification and we need to sit down together and clear the air… We will look into the safety concerns. We do not add MSG in Maggi noodles… We apply the same quality standards everywhere. Everything we do is keeping consumers in mind. We will do everything it takes, and are fully engaged with the authorities.”
But by then, things had spun out of control. Bulcke was left with little choice but to recall the popular noodles from the market. The company got Luca Fichera, then executive vice-president (supply chain) at Nestle India, to lead the recall process.
Between 5 June and 1 September 2015, Fichera’s team collected 38,000 tonnes of Maggi noodles from retail stores, and destroyed them by first crushing the noodles and then mixing them with fuel and burning in incinerators at 11 cement plants across the country.
“The entire recall process is huge and complex,” Fichera told Mint before he moved to become the director (supply chain) for Nestle Philippines.