Nestle’s Biggest India Crisis Over Lead in Noodles: Q&A

Nestle SA faces its biggest crisis in India as doubt spreads about the safety of some of its products, even though the company says they are safe.

The local unit of the world’s biggest food maker on Friday pulled its Maggi noodles from stores. That follows concerns about lead levels in some of the products amid probes by at least six Indian states, reports of bans by Singapore and Nepal, and a U.K. investigation.

Nestle India has plunged about 11 percent this week, on track for its biggest weekly drop since May 2006.

Q: What are Maggi noodles?

A: The most popular instant noodle brand in India, consumed by everyone from toddlers through to army soldiers. In a nation where some 700 million people live on less than $2 per day, the 12 rupees (19 U.S. cents) noodle packets are a mainstay. Maggi noodles account for about 20 percent to 25 percent of Nestle India’s sales, according to Morgan Stanley.

Q: What happened?

A: A routine test on a pack from a small town store in Uttar Pradesh state -- India’s most populous -- produced an unnerving result: the noodles’ seasoning had too much lead, about 7 times the country’s permissible limit. The crisis quickly unfolded from there, with Delhi and Tamil Nadu among the states that have banned the noodles. Major chains in India including Future Group and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. as well as the army’s canteens have all temporarily suspended Maggi sales.

Q: Is there a risk of litigation in India?

A: A court in Uttar Pradesh state sent a notice to Nestle and a trial is due from July 1 after tests found high lead levels in some noodle samples, according to V.K. Pandey, an official at the state’s Food Safety and Drug Administration. A court in neighboring Bihar ordered the police to file a criminal complaint against Maggi officials and the company’s Bollywood star brand ambassadors, the Press Trust of India reported.

Q: What about Maggi noodles sold overseas?

A: Aside from domestic Indian consumption, the noodles are exported around the world, mainly to countries with Indian diasporas. Nestle also manufactures Maggi in other countries. The packs sold in Australia, for instance, are made in Malaysia.

Q: How can lead theoretically get into food?

A: Lead is found in trace amounts in soil and released into the air from smokestacks at coal and smelting plants, according to J. K. Saha, principal scientist at the Indian Institute of Soil Science in Bhopal. Plants can absorb lead from soil, or it can settle on leaves, vegetables and fruit from the air and be ingested if the food isn’t washed properly. Food processing machinery may also contain the metal.

Q: What can lead do to human health?

A: Lead is a heavy metal that tends to accumulate in the body and can stay in the bloodstream, according to the World Health Organization. The minimum amount of lead that needs to be in the body for a person to get sick varies. Lead poisoning in children can cause symptoms such as retarded development, learning difficulties and hearing loss. In adults, it can cause high blood pressure, pain, reduced mental functioning and miscarriage or premature birth among women.