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Nestle and the Billa-Ranga syndrome

By Rajeev Srinivasan
June 10, 2015 21:03 IST
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Just as Billa-Ranga had become symbols of everything that was wrong with the system many years ago, Nestle is now portrayed as the wickedest of the wicked. Every known food crime in India is now attributed to Nestle including deliberately increasing the level of lead in their noodles, as well as deliberately destroying the health of millions. That's not only unfair, it's downright idiotic, says Rajeev Srinivasan.

Image: Children protest against Maggi noodles in Kolkata. Photograph: PTI Photo

I am going to defend Nestle a little bit, and let me provide a disclaimer up front: I have nothing whatsoever to do with the company, or its stock; nor do any of my close relatives. It is also not my favourite company in the world -- I remember its campaign to wean (no pun intended) young mothers off breastfeeding and onto infant formula. It was morally and ethically repugnant, and downright dangerous for babies in poor countries whose mothers had to depend on dodgy drinking water.

Nevertheless, I feel there's a feeding frenzy in India over the company's Maggi noodles, the market leader, and I think it's both hysterical and pointless. There are two reasons for this: One is that the discourse in India is essentially hard Left; two, there is an odd tendency to latch on to one individual or group, and declare them the biggest criminals in history (sort of the mirror image of the Messiah syndrome, wherein we wait for some Great Man to lead us to the Promised Land).

I call the latter the Billa-Ranga Syndrome, because I remember many years ago how there was a nation-wide manhunt on for two killers, the aforementioned Billa and Ranga, who kidnapped, tortured, raped and murdered two teenaged siblings, Geeta and Sanjay Chopra. Without in any way downplaying the horror and brutality of their crime (Billa and Ranga were hanged), I remember their strange -- how do I put it -- exaltation?

They had become symbols of everything that was wrong with the system. Every unsolved crime, earnest people claimed, had been committed by Billa and Ranga, especially while they were on the run. Every newspaper was full of breathless stories about them, which portrayed them as Robin Hoods or criminal masterminds who were omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent.

I see the same kind of feeding frenzy going on now; Nestle is portrayed as the wickedest of the wicked. Every known food crime in India is now attributed to Nestle including deliberately increasing the level of lead in their noodles, as well as deliberately destroying the health of millions. That's not only unfair, it's downright idiotic.

As someone pointed out, what's the alternative? A glass of fresh cow's milk? Do you know what your cows eat if they forage? Trash, especially plastic.

The problem of food adulteration is endemic. If all this fuss eventually ends up with some regulation and some control over pesticide residue, chemicals, hormones, antibiotics and other undesirable elements introduced into our food products, that would be great; however, I am not holding my breath because the habit is so widespread.

Just to take a small sample, I have been told to lay off mangoes because they are flash-ripened with ammonia (so much for the Banganapalle that I just love -- this season I ate only one). I was told that curry leaves -- yes, the ubiquitous kari veppila -- are the most pesticide-ridden items in the grocery store.

Similar stories for apples (wax on Chinese apples), watermelons (dye injected to make them look red and juicy) abound. It is advised that you wash all your vegetables in vinegar and/or warm salt water.

There are also stories about Chinese milk powder adulterated with a plastic called melamine that is a known carcinogen. A year or two ago, a young student ate shawarma (that vertical barbecue of somewhat mysterious meat) from a road-side stall, and died of food poisoning.

In other words, we face an epidemic of adulterated, and sometimes downright dangerous, food. I have heard for long -- and it may even be mentioned on the packaging -- that there is a fair amount of monosodium glutamate (MSG) in all instant noodles, and therefore it is inappropriate for children (as it is a chemical that fools the brain into thinking the food is tastier than it is). But it is a convenient food (and frankly, it's tasty) and that's why people use it. The guy who invented Ramen noodles in post-war Japan became a billionaire.

Instant noodles have become a hit in India especially with the lower socio-economic classes, partly because they perceive this as an aspirational middle-class food. In general, there has been a Westernisation of food in India: More wheat, bread, baked goods, breakfast cereal, 'English vegetables.' In the process, they have all but abandoned the healthy foods that we traditionally ate: Coarse grains like jowar, bajra, ragi; local vegetables like yam, moringa, various greens, jackfruit; snacks like idlis. Well, I hear that bajra is now being marketed as an expensive health food in the West (a bit like Andean quinoa).

We have allowed not only the packaged food industry to bamboozle us; the medical industry also follows fads that are not entirely to our benefit. They have made childbirth, just about the most natural thing in the world, into a disease, and many women now undergo (expensive) Caesarian sections, rather than normal vaginal delivery. Similarly, the removal of wombs and ovaries is a fad; hernia surgery, angioplasty and stents, prostate surgery are all widespread and probably overdone. In the US, almost everybody has their wisdom teeth removed, which startles people in India.

Thus, we as consumers have been bullied into accepting all sorts of things. I have heard absolute horror stories about many packaged food companies and their products. There is a belief that various colas are so powerful that they can remove the paint from a car if you spill some. There is the possibly apocryphal story about a burger that has remained intact for 15 years. Yes, without refrigeration: So powerful are the chemicals in it. Similarly, I heard that instant noodles will last for a year as a glutinous mass, unrefrigerated. Not to mention the real issues with lead and its impact on brain development.

A book I read some time ago talks about how the obsession with fat reduction in the US forced packaged-food companies to increase sugar and salt, just so that their products would be tasty. This has, in the long run, led to an explosion of diabetes in the US as companies used high-fructose corn syrup aplenty (this, incidentally, was available cheap because of the $30 billion in annual crop subsidies given to rice, wheat, corn, cotton and soy under the US Farm Bill).

Thus, all things considered, it is unfair to tar Nestle as a particularly bad company. But the company shares some blame: They could have responded much better to public concerns. The best example is Tylenol (a painkiller) and Johnson & Johnson, its maker. Some years ago, some maniac started injecting cyanide into bottles of Tylenol on the shelves in drugstores. This, obviously, was not the fault of J&J, but they did a masterful PR campaign: They immediately apologised, and they removed, at huge cost, all bottles of Tylenol from drugstore shelves.

The consumer did not forget this gesture of goodwill, and the implication that J&J stood behind its products and its good name. Shortly, Tylenol came back to market, and gained market share, and the company got a significant boost in brand value.

This is what Nestle could have done -- they could have immediately apologised, acted to remove offending packages from store shelves, and then released their own test data showing compliance with the prescribed standards.

As things stand, their market share of 70 per cent will take a hit; and indeed the entire 2-minute noodle category will take a hit. And the Indian consumer will not benefit unless this forces the government to take stringent action.

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