The Indian government on Wednesday ordered safety checks on Nestle India’s Maggi instant noodles after regional food inspectors said test batches of the popular snack were found to contain dangerous levels of lead.
The Swiss-based food giant has challenged the findings since the results of a first test in Uttar Pradesh hit the headlines last week.
But the Delhi government on Wednesday slapped a 15-day ban on Maggi noodles and said it would launch a criminal case against Nestle India on allegations of food adulteration.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s national government followed up by ordering an investigation of a product that accounts for 15-20 percent of Nestle’s revenues in India.
“We are not going to wait for all the reports to come,” Food and Consumer Affairs Minister Ram Vilas Paswan said Wednesday.
“The reports that are coming out – whether they are right or wrong, that I do not know. But the issue is serious.”
The Food Safety and Drug Administration in Uttar Pradesh found lead content of 17.2 parts per million (ppm) in routine tests on Nestle instant noodles – seven times the legal limit.
In response Nestle India said that it had conducted internal and external tests of 125 million Maggi packets which showed “lead levels are well within the limits specified by food regulations and that Maggi noodles are safe to eat.”
Nestle’s troubles have been aggravated by a separate incident in the southern state of Tamil Nadu where one consumer filed a complaint after he allegedly found insect larvae in Nestle’s NAN PRO-3 baby formula.
The company said on Tuesday it had not been contacted by the consumer or the authorities in relation to this matter.
Future Group, one of India’s biggest retailers, has taken Maggi noodles off its store shelves, but the product continues to be widely available at corner shops, food stands and cafes.
The tests conducted in Delhi on Tuesday revealed that out of a total of 13 samples of Masala tastemaker, 10 were found to be unsafe.
Inspectors also found monosodium glutamate (MSG) in five samples of the masala, with a proper declaration on the packaging.
Tests carried out in other states – including in Maharashtra and Goa – found that Maggi was safe to eat.
Scientists say that lead in manufactured food may come from raw materials, including water, flavouring material, packaging or the ingredients used to give the noodles its distinctive “curled” nature.
Even though the permissible limit of lead in manufactured food products is 2.5 ppm, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has said that there is no known level of lead that is considered safe.
MSG meanwhile, is used in manufactured food to make it tastier as it stimulates the nervous system. Most regulators consider MSG “generally safe”.
Nestle sells 5.2 billion Maggi noodle packs in dozens of countries across the world.