Who would have thought that a “2-minute” instant noodle brand would create a controversy that would last longer than what it takes to brew a bottle of crisp homemade beer. But it has, and by the looks of it, by the time it dies down, one would even manage to mature some Indian whisky.
Last week, even as Indian Maggi lovers were struggling to come to terms with the fact that getting hold of their favourite comfort food had become as difficult (?) as scoring liquor in Gujarat, the United Kingdom’s Food Standards Authority (FSA), cleared Maggi Noodles as being safe for consumption.
So, what exactly is cooking?
Surely, the goras can’t handle more lead in their food than us? Or, are European standards for metal contamination more flexible than ours? When we enquired about the permissible quantity of lead in food in the UK, we were informed by a spokesperson of the FSA that “the EU’s [European Union] maximum limit for lead is 0.2mg/kg in cereal – this level would also apply to the wheat used in Maggi Noodles”. Now, 0.2 mg/kg means 0.2 parts of lead per million parts (ppm) of Maggi. Back home according to Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), the permissible amount of lead in “foods not specified” (the category under which Maggi was tasted in) category is 2.5 ppm. So clearly, the standards are much more stringent in Europe (and the UK).
What explains the discrepancy then?
So 0.2 ppm is more stringent than 2.5 ppm. Now, with that settled, was the difference in test results because of dissimilar testing procedures? To be sure, the discrepancy is huge — the FSSAI found as much as 17.5 ppm of lead in a certain sample, while the FSA’s test yielded “well below” 0.2ppm.
The FSA spokesperson told us that the British regulatory authority tested the final product (the tastemaker and the noodle cooked together) in accordance with the EU’s principle of analysing food as it is “consumed”.
In India, though, the FSSAI, maintains that since the tastemaker and the noodle cake come in two separate packages, they are tested separately. The FSSAI further argues that the addition of water while preparing the noodles could affect the test results as the water used may also contain lead.
While FSSAI’s arguments sound reasonable, what does sound a little strange is that both the tastemaker and the noodle cake have been clubbed under the “foods not specified” category (which has a maximum permissible lead limit of 2.5 ppm), while according to FSSAI’s regulations, spices and flavourings can contain up to 10 ppm of lead. Notably, in many cases including in Tamil Nadu, Delhi and Gujarat, the lead content in the tastemaker was found to be between 2.5 and 10 ppm.
The difference in the methods of analysis doesn’t end there. The FSSAI, in India, used a technique called the atomic absorption spectrometry (AAS) method. The UK, as told to us by the FSA’s spokesperson, used two techniques “to eliminate any chances of error”. According to the spokesperson, UK’s FSA used the AAS method as well as something called the inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry (ICP-MS).
Yes, we shall try to break down the two for you.
Spectrometry works on the basic principle that different metals absorb light with specific frequencies. The energy absorbed excites electrons, moving them from their ground state to a higher energy state. In AAS, hollow cathode lamps are used to emit light with these frequencies on a sample – and metal ions present in the sample absorb these frequencies. The amount of light absorbed is proportional to the concentration of the metal ion in the sample. Finally, the amount of light absorbed is compared to the amount of light absorbed by a sample with known concentration.
In the case of ICP-MS, a plasma source is used to convert the metal (to be detected) in the sample to ions. The ions are then separated by a mass spectrometer. Once the ions enter the mass spectrometer, they are separated by their mass-to-charge ratio. After the ions are separated by their mass-to-charge ratio, a detector is used to translate the number of ions striking the detector into an electrical signal that can be measured and related to the number of atoms of the particular metal to be detected in the sample via the use of calibration standards.
Okay, cut the jargon. Just tell us which of the two methods is more reliable.
While it is possible that the difference in the analysis methods may have lead to the inconsistencies, it seems highly unlikely, since the EU spokesperson confirmed to us that it also employed the AAS method. Clearly, not one of those mysteries that you can crack in two minutes.
(With inputs from Mahima Singh)