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Maggi: From mania to menace

The event and the chain it triggered: Nestlé India, the Indian counterpart of the Swiss giant, is in the soupy noodles. Some government agency from UP has found traces of lead and some other substance (MSG) in excess in 'Maggi'. The nation has reacted with shock. It had to. We read papers, we watch news, we socialize on the net, and above everything else we are conscious about health. Quite naturally, a chain of events have been triggered. 

Several states have taken up verification of samples on their own. Kerala has decided to disallow its sale while Delhi has declared war against it after testing afresh. Only Goa seems to be the only one to show solidarity to Nestlé. On the other front, celebrities who endorsed are being pulled into this whole controversy. Madhuri Dixit, Big B, Preity Zinta are some of the big names of Bollywood that are being dragged in this dirt. The jury is divided; whether models can ever be made responsible. The stock price was firmly holding for last one month until today. Having almost all the state governments crying foul, the stock crashed 10% today (3rd June). The rivals are extremely cautious, they’re busy showing their health-conscious self. The sales figures are on a decline; that’s obvious. It seems to be poised for a straight fall from the height of grace to ignominy or potential oblivion.

Rome wasn't built in "2 minutes": 'Maggi' has been their flagship product in India for 3 decades. Many celebrities have blessed the product and encouraged kids to swallow those curly stuff for breakfast. It has earned the favor of kids, their primary consumers. It has set the trend and ruled the segment. Rivals have come and gone, but 'Maggi' has ensured high P/E ratio for Nestlé India stock. It has managed to satisfactorily cater to different categories of parents in the face of fierce competition. There still is the vanilla sample, plus the ostensibly 'healthier' (Maida replaced by Atta) and 'wholesome' (added with preserved vegetables) varieties. The objective was simple - no smart parent should be left out of the radar in this era when cooking is at best to write a recipe on a blog and not the most preferred pastime for busy parents. 'Eat out' or 'quick fix a meal' at home. Cooks usually manage lunch or supper and there are players for breakfasts. Things turn murkier when it's time for snacks. 'Maggi' in a way revolutionized Indian ready-to-eat industry. It has flaunted the "2 minutes" punch in every commercial since 1982.

Long-term consequences: If it's a consistent observation, they're heading for grave consequences. To start with, they recalled and performed other damage control rituals e.g. blaming the sun, reminding of their uncompromising quality control, assurance of an unbiased probe etc. But even if it's a stray contamination, the psychological impact on their consumers is hard to fade. Apart from 'Maggi', other offerings in their portfolio may not keep them afloat in the Indian market comfortably. Well, they have 'Nescafe', 'Everyday' and 'Kitkat' among quite a few other items, but none compares to a 'Maggi'. For the celebrities gracing the advertisements, they’re on the backfoot. Madhuri Dixit meets Nestlé officials to enquire, Amitabh Bachchan claims to have been cautious on endorsements. This may mean a risk of cut in ‘perks’ component of the income looming large for a host of celebs.

Flip side: There are 2 sides to a coin. I was told, there must be something good somewhere else if something goes wrong here. The truth may be different from the report. These may be ‘standard’ ingredients over years but none cared to disclose for understandable reasons. Maybe someone spell the beans now by sudden fits of integrity or revenge. Or did someone plant things at the behest of some peer food packager? Maybe are maybes. There is a certain level of expectation for everything on the minds of a consumer to the service provider. The service of investigating a mystery is no exception. We may never know the truth, but would keep an eye on media in expectation of hearing a story – gorier, the better. For now it's party time for nutritionists, health experts and public intellectuals. They hog light as panelists to fight on this subject and have finally got time off their busy schedule to teach us and our children what not to eat. We bear with them till we, our media and all the experts of this planet hit another thought-provoking theme elsewhere. 

What are Maggi-cians up to?: Unfortunately for the manufacturing corporation, it's an ordeal. All the crisis management machinery must be called on. The best of management gurus are at work to guide them from the trench back to the shelves of caring and smart parents. A hungry generations' taste buds are at stake. They are helplessly looking at their respective parents' heads to nod in green. A natural timeout or a thumbs-up from a trustworthy or respected celebrity may bail them out of this ditch but it's not a guaranteed method. I'm sure all the precedents are pulled out and all surgical hands are on deck. Aamir Khan played the role of a faith restorer for a cola company a few years back, when it was stuck under similar circumstances. He said, rather was asked to say that he had visited the bottling plants himself and found no truth in those 'baseless' allegations and hence it was absolutely safe for cola drinkers of all ages to binge. I still remember his stern look at a conveyor belt to validate the process! If someone wants me to vote, I'd go with Salman Khan here. Today he fits the bill of a narrator of any 'true' story not only to the six pack-aspiring youth but also to the remaining lot who get more credulous when they see a superstar addressing them. The prospect of a recovery seems bleak as of today though.
Takeaways for us, the poor mortals: We at best can raise a few questions based on this whole episode. My few cents –
1. Why on earth should we bother about just one specific noodles brand? If we worry about poisoning to our kids, what about other brands, other similar fast foods, or non-food items that kids are close to (e.g. toys, clothes)?
2. What about natural stuff e.g. vegetables? They are smeared with harmful chemicals just to look green and fresh.
3. How about examining effect of pesticides on edible crops?
4. Why suddenly a crackdown now? After 32Y of ‘healthy’ existence, why to spy on a ‘tastemaker’ pouch all of a sudden?
5. If it’s to be taken as a good start, late than never etc, what is the next step? Will everything be scanned, duly?
6. In a greater context, what does quality assurance mean to any product whatsoever?
7. There is no shortage of labs that test such food. These noodles, even otherwise, serve bland carbohydrates with much inferior diet than “roti and daal”. I’m no expert, but I read it somewhere. Such reports are infrequent and blink-and-miss. I've read tiny reports on injection of anti-biotics to bees and hen to increase productivity. Such voices are hushed up with phenomenal promptness. Sunita Narain?
8. Are celeb brand ambassadors guilty? Not really. I don’t think they have any control on such consequences. They neither understand quality or they need to. Endorsement is just a side income. Since a brand’s credibility is built or enhanced by the brand equity of successful actors, players, singers, can’t there be anything on their plate apart from earning quick money? Let’s say, a disclaimer in any commercial advertisement quoting “Hi I’m XYZ, I’m here to promote a product but I don’t take any responsibility if you die using it”. Or “I endorse this brand on blind faith, but I may not be using it”. Will such a statutory warning harm?


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