By Carey Wedler
The Indian government has announced that it is suing mega corporation Nestle over claims it deceptively allowed unsafe and illegal levels of lead in Maggi instant noodles, one of the company’s most popular products in the country. The lawsuit, which seeks nearly $100 million in damages, alleges Nestle engaged in “unfair trade practices” and alleges the noodles are unfit for human consumption.
On Wednesday, the Indian government officially declared that it filed suit in the country’s top consumer court, the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (NCDRC), which has semi-judicial powers. It seeks 6,400 million rupees, or $98.6 million in damages from Nestle India.
“Our complaint is over their unfair trade practices and the court will now issue them notices to hear their response,” said G. Gurcharan, a secretary at the Ministry of Consumer Affairs.
Sales of the noodles plunged after India’s food safety regulator reported in June that it had tested the noodles and found “unsafe and hazardous” levels of lead. According to the EPA, exposure to unsafe amounts of lead, if chronic and left untreated, is associated with serious side effects:
“In adults, lead poisoning can cause:
- poor muscle coordination
- nerve damage to the sense organs and nerves controlling the body
- increased blood pressure
- hearing and vision impairment
- reproductive problems (e.g., decreased sperm count)
- retarded fetal development even at relatively low exposure levels
In children, lead poisoning can cause:
- damage to the brain and nervous system
- behavioral problems
- liver and kidney damage
- hearing loss
- developmental delays
- in extreme cases, death”
In addition to lead, the analysis of the noodles reportedly detected monosodium glutamate, a chemical flavor enhancer that has come under fire in recent years for its potential toxicity.
Predictably, Nestle India maintains it has done nothing wrong. “In recent months, we had over 2,700 samples of MAGGI Noodles tested by several accredited laboratories both in India and abroad. Each one of these tests have shown lead to be far below the permissible limits,” said an official statement. If the Indian government’s concerns prove warranted, however, this would mean Nestle is lying about its claims of safety. Nestle India has already agreed to withdraw all Maggi noodles from shelves in India and said it would destroy over 3.2 billion rupees ($50 billion) worth of the product.
Indian officials maintain the dangers of the Maggi noodles are real. “It’s a serious matter concerning public health and the law allows us to take suo moto legal steps, or legal actions, against erring entities,” said one official from the ministry in June when the announcement was made that the government intended to file suit. At the same time, the national food inspection agency announced plans to investigate Nestle’s eight factories around the country, though they do not all produce Maggi noodles.
India is no stranger to strife caused by food and biotech giants. It recently dealt with hundreds of thousands of suicides by Indian farmers, who struggled with crippling debt they incurred to buy high-priced GMO seeds. India has instituted stringent policies on GMOs.
Though the facts of the case are disputed, the current lawsuit against Nestle is yet another example of global backlash against the questionable—and often outright sinister—practices of powerful corporations.