By Vijay Darda | 08-06-2015
Over the week, a big global brand has been brought down to its knees. When a giant falls it is not a happy feeling. Nestle, the food giant is down in the dumps. It is a company that owns the Maggi brand. It is a 92 billion dollar company, with profits over 14 billion dollars. Its Indian turnover at about Rs 9,800 crores with the Maggi noodles contributing 22 per cent of it, does not even figure separately in the annual report for 2014.
But yes, Maggi oats figures separately and the MNC is proud that its new product is capturing the urban Indian market. Its tag line is Good Food, Good Life. It has been making hay for the last 150 years. The world believes in it, or else it would not be a global giant, and more importantly India believed it, her mothers believed it. But now that belief has come down crashing. It has been proved that almost like any other small time trader, Nestle is not above in either telling lies or adulterating for the sake of profit.
Food adulteration – the desire to add an ingredient that should not be there with the idea of profit maximization – is as old as human greed. Nestle has been found guilty of greed. It has betrayed its promise of “supporting parents in raising healthier children”. Its two-minute snack Maggi noodles that was backed by high powered Bollywood endorsement – Tasty bhi, healthy bhi – became the popular choice of working mothers across India. The product has been found to contain 8 times the permissible limits of lead and the taste enhancer monosodium glutamate (MSG). The results have been proved by different labs across states. Now lead is simply another word for slow poisoning. How does ‘slow poisoning’ gel with ‘raising children?’
This greed was Nestle’s primary offence. It has been compounded by arrogance. Instead of accepting with humility the first reports that there was something wrong with the product, when the first samples were collected in March 2014, there has been a sustained effort to present a case as if these tests in the state labs are non-standard and debatable or some kind of unnecessary confusion is being created. This continued even when the CEO Peter Bulcke addressed the media and claimed that ‘Maggi was safe’ when he was perhaps aware that the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) was about to pass an order that all nine Maggi variants be withdrawn.
Added to this attempt to brazen it out, there is a feeling that Nestle wants to treat this as some kind of a public relations crisis that can be quick-fixed through an ad campaign. But the fact is that it has taken the painstaking efforts of an Agra-based food inspector Sanjay Singh almost a year to establish that there is something indeed wrong with Maggi noodles. You cannot simply take down a brand of Nestle’s size unless you are backed by evidence. Julius Maggi, the 19th century Swiss gentleman after whom the brand is named would not have hoped for this twist in the tale surrounding his name. He would have liked to see that his name remains untarnished. But we see all the traits of corporatocracy in this case.
The corporate bosses believe that they rule the world. Well, the fact is that they do it most of the times. They are also convinced that they can do no wrong or there is no wrong that they cannot fix with a wave of the hand. They also do get away most of the times. But then it is not for nothing that the corporates hate the term ‘inspector raj’. Ultimately, it was a food inspector who brought the big brand Nestle down.
But neither adulteration and greed nor arrogance are the failings of Nestle alone. The entire market suffers from these maladies. There are enough credible accounts available from erstwhile insiders that tell us horrifying tales of market manipulation in all its dimensions for profit maximization. It is a no holds barred game, and adulteration is just one weapon. From life-saving drugs to life giving foods – Maggi is not the only brand that plays this tantalizingly dangerous and disastrous game of living on the edge. The FSSAI that has given the orders against Maggi lists various adulterants that can be detected in commonly used products/commodities through simple tests.
But this is not going to be enough. Food adulteration has to be treated like a serious crime, almost like attempt to murder. We need a regimen in place that makes it not just deterrent, but also ensures that the punishment is quite disproportionate to the crime. This is an instance in which the punishment needs to have that scale. After all what kind of a deterrent a fine and a few months imprisonment will be for a food giant like Nestle? Some lowly India functionary will suffer at the most. We need to evolve an entirely different approach towards corporate crimes, and this has to become an integral part of our anxiety to improve the ease of doing business with India. Yes we welcome global integration, but not that treats Indians just as customers. We are not taken in by the empty slogans like consumer is the king, when the reality is that the corporates are the new monarchs who treat their customers like subjects.
The Maggi debate has also opened up issues like pollution and the dangers lurking in the environment. But there is no need to confuse the two issues. Nestle has an explicit responsibility towards product excellence. It is no fly by night operator, but a food giant with 92 billion dollars in sales. The faith of millions of mothers is built around these credentials. Mothers woo children with “Maggi” not because Madhuri tells them onscreen, but because Nestle claims it to be a safe product. If that trust is dented, there is nothing that separates Nestle from the street vendor round the corner. However, for a healthier future we need to be protected from not just Maggi, but all other adulterated products.
Before I conclude…
In the context of the Maggi muddle, the question of celebrity endorsements has become relevant. Both the brand and the celebrity complement each other. So, if the brand suffers, the celebrity must also pay. It can be argued that the celebrity cannot be held responsible for the errors and omissions of the brand. But then in something like a food product, which is essentially a matter of life and death there has to be an element of responsibility for the product quality with the celebrity as well. Unless the two are linked – both punitively and may be profitably as well – the cause would not be served. This is all the more relevant considering that Maggi threatens to come back.