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Maggi: If it’s bad, it’s good

Mohit Hira is the Chief Executive & Publisher, Open magazine
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Why the Maggi problem is an opportunity

The darker the cloud, the more silver there is in the lining

For the pessimist, this may sound farcical but it’s perspective that matters the most when a crisis hits a corporation as large as Nestlé and its much-loved 2-minute Maggi Noodles. It’s perspective, too, that matters when the administration of a state as large as Uttar Pradesh, chooses to make it public that packets of Maggi have been found with unacceptable levels of lead and MSG. And, it’s perspective, again, that matters when a generation of social media users goes ballistic and broadcasts their individual, unsolicited opinions to ever-expanding networks of frenzied friends and followers that result in an overnight five-fold increase of ‘Maggi’ being Googled. A public relations crisis is something that most global corporations prepare for. They train their local leadership teams to remain calm, co-operate with local governments and switch to standard operating procedures that define clear lines of action in such times.

And that’s where the paradox of perspectives starts to play out.

At one end of the duel stands the prosecution, armed with samples of a brand built over years with immense equity among children, youth and entire families. And, in the other corner, stands a multi-national that swears by its high standards of quality and hygiene.

Caught in the quagmire, what both parties may have forgotten is that this is India. An India whose bazaars are confluences of chaos, of heat and dust and grime where retailers and consumers often ignore expiry dates. Ignorance is offtake here. Shelf space is a prized territory where salesmen must thwart competitors and whose climb up the ladder depends on how high they can stock units across retail stores. This is an India where traditional kirana stores still thrive but are being nudged by large-format hypermarts: if the former is the worst possible place for food products (remember the Cadbury crisis a few years ago?) the latter extends shelf-life by a few days, if not weeks, of perishable products. Bread, cheese, milk, chocolates, wine, colas, juices and many other packaged foods that are manufactured under global standards travel to these local neighbourhood stores in unrefrigerated, unhygienic trucks. They change hands often before they reach a shelf somewhere in distant Uttar Pradesh. There, they are stored in conditions that the Swiss headquarters of Nestlé might not have imagined while formulating these products. So, products that consumers buy aren’t necessarily the same that left the factory. To test this hypothesis, drive down to Nashik and drink a glass of Sula at their vineyard where it’s as fresh as it can be. Then, buy the same wine at a store in town and another in Mumbai or Pune or even Delhi: these will taste rancid, not because Sula dispatched a different batch but because our climate and storage conditions turned wine into vinegar. Sour grapes, literally.

That’s one perspective of why packaged food products deteriorate by the time they are consumed. If products are defined as goods manufactured in a factory and brands are fluffy things that exist in a consumer’s mind, a food brand is among the most perilous categories to be working on: despite adhering to global formulation with the choicest ingredients sourced and blended perfectly and backed by robustly-researched, expensive advertising beamed across millions of TV sets, the packet of Maggi noodles you buy just isn’t the same as the one that Nestlé’s boffins created. So, as the company recently stated in its defence, the MSG could have been created within the packs because of various conditions that aren’t in their control: the sealed pack became a cauldron of sorts. Regardless of whether this is true or not, what is undisputable is that storage conditions cannot be the responsibility of Nestlé or any other manufacturer.

Now consider, for a moment, that Maggi is not a packet of noodles. That it is not even a product brand but a service. Having created the category of instant noodles just a few decades ago, and having spent millions to advertise its 2-minuteness, Maggi became a service brand. From Char-dukan in Mussoorie to the pavements of Dalhousie in Kolkata, Maggi can be had hot and tasty. Hostelites have devoured Maggi when no other sustenance could be found late into the night, as have overworked executives in BPOs and sundry office canteens. Two minutes may have worked to attract consumers who marvelled at its taste-maker sachet and then improvised to spice up servings at will. Thus, came ‘Mera walla Maggi’… which implies it wasn’t Nestlé-walla Maggi anymore. For anyone who gorges on street food, anywhere in the world, improvisation is key and pavement hawkers attract regular customers because of their own recipes and cooking styles. Mothers, too, have their own quirks when it comes to recipes. When you’re hungry and can’t afford anything more, hygiene be damned! No one bothers to ask the roadside chef what he’s adding to the noodles – salt or MSG? No one even bothers to check the kitchens of the many hole-in-the-wall eateries or food delivery startups that have mushroomed in our cities and promise home delivery. The kitchens, the boxes on the bikes, the delivery boys themselves… there is simply no inspecting what goes into these dishes and, consequently, into one’s stomachs. So, while a Domino’s or Pizza Hut or McDonald’s will adhere to certain minimum hygiene standards, everyone doesn’t.

And yet, no government ever questions these, do they? Do food inspectors even exist? Do they certify restaurants and delivery vehicles? Are we not missing the wood for the trees when we lash out at Nestlé and Maggi?

Step back, India, and look at the bigger picture. In a largely unregulated, unmonitored sector, the unscrupulous eatery-owner can get away with anything. Unbranded chicken momos, the new-age street-side snack that has displaced samosas and jhaal-moori, may or may not even have chicken in them. They may not be fresh. The water they are steamed in, the oil they are fried in, the plastic packet in which they are bundled may not be food-grade but so what? There’s no MNC to blame.

Take two minutes aside and reflect before you rant: if Maggi is bad (and that’s a big IF), then it’s good for India as a whole to wake up and go beyond just this one issue. It’s time to institute regulation and monitor certain basic standards when it comes to food. If a government can really do this, it will perhaps have taken one step forward in making things better at the level where it really matters.

As for Nestlé and the Maggi issue, why add fuel to a fire that’s already clouded in smoke? Maligning a brand takes less than two minutes, building one takes much, much longer.