The Indian government has announced that it is suing mega corporation Nestle over claims it deceptively allowed unsafe and illegal levels of lead in packages of Maggi instant noodles, which is one of the company’s most popular products. 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 is demanding 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 and the CDC, exposure to lead, if chronic and left untreated, is associated with serious side effects:
In adults, lead poisoning can cause:
- loss of muscle coordination
- nerve damage to the sensory organs and nerves controlling the body
- increased blood pressure and heart problems
- 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
Nestle India maintains it has done nothing wrong. An official statement said :“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” 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 that the dangers of the Maggi noodles are real. “It’s a serious matter concerning public health and the law allows us to take some more legal steps, or legal actions, against erring entities,” said one official from the ministry in June when the announcement was first made that the government intended to file suit. At that point, the national food inspection agency announced plans to investigate Nestle’s 8 factories throughout the country, though they do not all produce Maggi noodles.
India is no stranger to strife caused by industrial food giants. If this turns out to be true, it will deepen the wounds first made in the Bhopal disaster which roughly 500,000 people to carcinogenic and poisonous chemicals before Union Carbide (now Dow Chemical) left without paying compensation.
Though the facts of the case are disputed, the current lawsuit against Nestle is yet another example of giant companies being accused of unethical and corrupt business practices, such as in the current VW emissions scandal.