Kolkata, June 5 (IANS) The revelations of presence of higher-than-permissible levels of lead in certain batches of Maggi noodles is just the tip of the iceberg, said experts, highlighting the absence of stringent regulation of processes such as recycling of lead-based products as well as lack of public awareness for the snowballing effects on food contamination.
Nestle India early on Friday said it was withdrawing Maggi noodles in the country amid nation-wide scrutiny over more-than-permissible limits of lead, but continued to maintain it was safe and that it would be back on store shelves soon.
Some governments like in Gujarat, Delhi and Jammu and Kashmir had banned Maggi for 15-30 days and several others had called for tests on the popular noodles after a batch in a small town in Uttar Pradesh was allegedly found to contain higher-than-permissible levels of lead.
Following the concerns, a host of retailers — from neighbourhood mom-and-pop shops to larger ones like Big Bazaar and WalMart — withdrew it from their shelves.
But is it enough?
“It is a consumer-driven market. The demand for lead is so high in our country that the producer will use all sorts of unscrupulous method to supply,” Thuppil Venkatesh, Chairman, Indian Society for Lead Awareness and Research (INSLAR), told IANS.
Venkatesh, Principal Advisor Quality Council of India (QCI) and National Referral Centre for Lead Projects in India (NRCLPI) questioned the lack of inspection of recycling and disposal methods of lead-based products.
“Today there is no check on handling of toxic materials. Where is the inspection when the neighbouring area is recycling lead and the environment gets polluted, Venkatesh asked.
In fact, the major route through which lead, a heavy metal, finds its way into the food chain is via recycling of lead-acid batteries which are commonly used in automobiles. Lead exposure not only damages the nervous system but also affects renal and reproductive systems and bones.
“The main source of lead is through recycling of lead acid batteries, which can pollute air and water. From these two sources, lead can reach our food chain. The other sources of lead exposure are through oil paints, ceramic industry, toys and wrapping of food articles in newspaper,” Mukul Das, scientist and area coordinator, Food, Drug and Chemical Toxicology Group, Indian Institute of Toxicology Research, Lucknow, told IANS.
Apart from “strictly curtailing” the recycling of lead-acid batteries, Das said the waste material from oil paint, ceramic and toy industries should be treated before draining off.
Another concern for states like Karnataka and West Bengal is the use of lead-based paints on idols during religious festivities, which are then immersed in water bodies, pointed out Venkatesh.
While the latest controversy has stirred the hornet’s nest when it comes to food safety watch and regulations, experts on the subject like B. Dinesh Kumar from Hyderabad’s National Institute of Nutrition said lead exposure does not discriminate between the rich and the poor.
“In rural areas, children are exposed to duplicate samples of these packaged foods. How will you know where they come from? The machineries used in food processing and packaging, what about them? Also, they are, in comparison to the kids in urban landscape, malnourished,” Dinesh Kumar told IANS.
“Besides, the backyard recycling of lead batteries and other products is commonplace in rural areas. This is just the tip of the ice-berg,” he added.
Dinesh Kumar, however, acknowledged that to keep pace with global progress, India has no way but to embrace modernisation, including in food production.A
“But at the same time, it must like other countries adopt improved technologies. The procedures for monitoring must be made strict and methods should be updated,” Kumar said, adding the same should apply to branding and labelling of products.