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Noodle companies in fresh FSSAI soup

Friday, 04 March, 2016, 08 : 00 AM [IST]
Kunal Kishore
FSSAI (Food Safety and Standards Authority of India) and noodles seem to be not getting along well for some time now. First, it was Nestle’s Maggi, which was banned for the presence of Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) and excess lead content.Then Patanjali got a notice for its‘Atta Noodles’ on the ground that they had a licence for marketing ‘Pasta’ but not ‘Atta Noodles.’ The latest additions to the list appear to be Knorr Soupy Noodles, Horlicks Foodles Noodles and Ching’s Hot Garlic Instant Noodles. These products allegedly have more ash than permissible. As per the food authorities, the prescribed maximum limit of 1% ash has been breached in these products, which is a limit prescribed for pasta products.

The dispute relating to Nestle’s  Maggi was more of a factual dispute regarding the presence of MSG and excess lead, which has been strongly contested on the basis of lab reports, whereas the ones related to Patanjali and the other three are due to lack of clarity about the scope of the food regulations. The basic premise of the notice issued to Patanjali appears to be opposite to the stand taken in the recent disputes reported for Knorr Soupy Noodles, Horlicks Foodles Noodles and Ching’s Hot Garlic Instant Noodles.

Standardised category
The showcause notice to Patanjali was based on the premise that the noodles was not a standardised product allowed under the Food Standards and Additives Regulations and therefore the same could not have been sold without prior approval. Patanjali has argued that the noodle was covered under the standardised category of ‘Pasta/Macaroni Products’ which was broad enough to cover ‘Noodles’; therefore there was no need to obtain any prior approval. In the latest disputes, a totally opposite stand appears to have been taken. Here, the food authorities are assuming that these three kinds of noodles are covered under the category of ‘Pasta/Macaroni Products’ and therefore the prescribed limit of maximum of 1% of ash has been breached.

Nature of action
An important question to be answered by the food authorities on this vexed issue is whether ‘Noodle’ is covered under the standardised food category of ‘Pasta/Macaroni Products’ or not. If it is covered, then the prescribed parameters for Pasta will apply and the limit of maximum of 1% of ash has to be maintained. However, in that case the natural corollary would be that the notice issued to Patanjali was incorrect. Meanwhile, if Noodle is not a Pasta product, the question of applying a Pasta standard would not apply. The product will then be covered under the category of ‘Proprietary food’ and the natural corollary would be that the most recent action against the three companies is incorrect.

Guidance notes
Now, the question arises as to why such diametrically opposite views are being taken by the food authorities. First, the reason could be the absence of guidance notes and uniform training of the food authorities for which the responsibility would lie upon the FSSAI and the food commissioners of the states. The present scenario suggests that the food authorities are reading and interpreting the Act and the regulations on their own without the help of any guidance notes issued by the higher authorities. Second, it could be due to the lack of communication/coherence between the Central and state level authorities. This could be the case since the notice in the case of Patanjali was issued by the Central level authorities whereas the immediate action has been taken by the state authorities. Third, it could be due to the improper implementation of the Food Licensing and Registration System (FLRS) or incorrect understanding of the FLRS. Under the FLRS, when a person applies for a licence as a service sector food business operator like distributor/marketer/ retailer/transporter and so on, only broad categories of food items appear in the drop-down list online; whereas, if one applies as a manufacturer, a more detailed list appears.  This is probably the reason when Patanjali applied as a marketer, it would have got a licence for ‘Pasta Products’ which is a broader category and not ‘noodles,’ a narrower category under it. The FLRS is based on Food Category system, which categorises all kinds of food stuff in 16 categories. It is hierarchical in nature and different food categories have been described in a four level structure wherein food items have been divided into sub-categories and sub-sub categories. When a person applies for a licence in a service sector category like distributor/marketer/retailer/transporter and so on, only the main category appears. Whereas, when one applies as a manufacturer, a more specific entry (sub-categories or sub-sub categories mentioned under the Indian food code) comes in the drop-down list. If someone applies as a marketer, he would get the broad category of “Pasta Products” but if he applies as manufacturer, he would get more specific options like ‘Fresh Pasta and Noodles’, ‘Dried Pasta and Noodles’, ‘Pre-cooked pasta and Noodles’ and so on. This could be the reason why Patanjali as a marketer had a licence for ‘Pasta Products’ whereas its supporting manufacturer had it for a sub-category like noodles.

Presence of ash
Having analysed the possible reasons for the contradictory stands being taken by the authorities, let us now examine the merit of the latest disputes. A number of questions come to mind in this context. As per the food authorities, the noodles tested contained more than the maximum prescribed limit of 1% ash and therefore they were sub-standard. The first question is why at all ash is allowed in any kind of food. Ash refers to any inorganic material, such as minerals, present in food. It is called ash because it is the residue that remains after heating removes water and organic materials such as fat and protein.  Ash can include both compounds with essential minerals, such as calcium and potassium, and toxic materials, such as lead. Therefore, the presence of ash does not mean that ash in a literal sense is allowed to be added to a food product.

The second question is what effect the excess ash can have on a consumer. The ash content has been reported to be in the range of 1-3% in the three products. It needs to be mentioned that in many standardised food items, it has been allowed in the much higher range of 5-9%. Therefore, ash content exceeding 1% does not necessarily mean that the food is unsafe and it will have an adverse impact on the consumer. It only implies that the noodles cannot fall in the category of a standardised food item like Pasta.

The third question is whether such products are allowed to be manufactured and sold. As on date, a large number of food products in the market fall under the category of non-standardised food products, as only some food products are standardised. Till a few days ago, there was a doubt whether any non-standardised product could be sold without prior approval or not. Thankfully, that doubt has been set to rest by a recent notification of FSSAI wherein non-standardised products using ingredients used in standardised products or standardised additives have been allowed without any need of prior approval.

The final question is if FSSAI has allowed such non-standardised food products without prior approval, what is the relevance of ash content in excess of the prescribed limit. From the perspective of food safety, it will perhaps not have much relevance because it is not considered unsafe per se. However, from the perspective of the Food Safety and Standards (Packaging and Labelling) Regulations, the marketers might need to make certain adjustments so that the consumer does not get an impression that it is a standardised product.  However, for a resolution of the matter the food authorities would have to take a clear stand as to whether ‘Noodles’ fall under the standardised food category of ‘Pasta/Macaroni Products.’ If, the answer is affirmative, the marketer would have to make certain adjustments in the name of the product but then in that scenario the notice issued earlier to Patanjali would become infructuous. If the answer is in the negative, the current dispute involving Knorr Soupy Noodles, Horlicks Foodles Noodles and Ching’s Hot Garlic Instant Noodles would not have enough basis to survive. In either case, it leaves a lot for FSSAI to ponder as to how to avoid such actions based on contradictory interpretations of the law.If the legal tangle is left unresolved by FSSAI, the food industry cannot hope to have any respite for some time.

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