Mumbai | Maggi noodles manufacturer Nestle India Ltd today got a reprieve from the Bombay High Court which lifted the ban slapped by food regulators on nine variants of the fast food in the country while asking the company to go in for fresh tests.
While observing that principles of natural justice were not followed by the Food Safety Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) and Maharashtra’s Food and Drugs Department (FDA) before imposing the ban, a division bench of the high court allowed Nestle to go in for fresh testing to ascertain whether lead content in the popular snack is below permissible limit.
This will be done by sending five samples of each variant of the instant noodles to three independent laboratories in Punjab, Hyderabad and Jaipur which were accredited with National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories (NABL), the court said. Though the court has quashed the orders of the Indian food regulators banning the nine variants of the noodles, it will take some more time for Maggi to hit the market.
Reacting to the court order, FSSAI said it was keeping its options open on whether to challenge the Bombay High Court order in the Supreme Court. The regulator said that an appeal before the Supreme Court is neither ruled in, nor ruled out as yet. In a statement, Nestle India welcomed the High Court order and said it will undertake fresh tests.
Nestle India respects the decision made on August 13 by the Honourable Bombay High Court to revoke the ban order passed by the FSSAI and FDA, Maharashtra, on Maggi noodles and will comply with the order to undertake fresh tests, the company said.
Food and Processing Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal said the High Court decision had come after hearing both sides. I welcome the decision that they have taken because I am sure it is what is good for the nation and good for the people.
I have always maintained that there needs to be totally transparent and clear-cut protocol which the industry should know it has to follow, she said. Samples for the fresh testing would be taken out of the 750 samples preserved by the company following the ban. A huge stock of Maggi noodles was destroyed by Nestle after the ban was imposed by the food regulators.
If the lead content is found below permissible limits by the three labs, Nestle, the Indian arm of Swiss company, will be allowed to manufacture Maggi noodles, Justices V M Kanade and B P Colabawala said. The labs have been asked to submit their report within six weeks.
While quashing the orders of the food regulators, the court said that principles of natural justice were not followed because the manufacturer was not given a hearing. Moreover, the laboratories, where tests were performed to determine lead content in Maggi, were not authorised, the court observed.
The judges refused to grant stay on their order on a plea made by food regulators. They said the company had given an undertaking that it would not manufacture or sell Maggi noodles till the results of the three labs were received. The fresh tests would also take some time. Hence, there was no need to grant a stay on the order, the judges said.
The HC held that the petitions filed by Nestle challenging the nation-wide ban on Maggi noodles was maintainable and that it (the high court) had the jurisdiction to hear it under powers derived by it under Article 226 of the Constitution.
FSSAI and FDA had earlier banned Maggi noodles saying the samples of noodles tested by them contained ‘lead beyond permissible limit’. Nestle had argued that its product did not contain ‘lead’ in excess of permissible ceiling and challenged the tests by FSSAI and FDA, while the food regulators had said that the lead content in the noodles detected during the tests in reputed laboratories was harmful to public health.
FSSAI had issued the order banning Maggi noodles on June 5, this year while FDA had issued similar order the next day. During a previous hearing in the court, Justices Kanade and Colabawala had asked both the sides to give their consent for fresh independent test.
However, the parties could not arrive at a consensus to the suggestion mooted by the HC which today ordered fresh tests. Nestle’s lawyer Iqbal Chhagla had earlier said the company was agreeable to the suggestion, but the tests should be conducted in the presence of a renowned scientist and the samples available with the company should be used.
Darius Khambata, appearing for FDA, had contended that one of the samples must be from the lot collected by the state FDA. For us, consumer interest is most important…this litigation may go on but we feel that the issue should be resolved amicably and, therefore we suggested the parties to agree to a fresh independent test, the bench observed.
The Nestle lawyer alleged that FSSAI and FDA had violated followed principles of natural justice by not giving a hearing to the company before banning nine variants of Maggi noodles on the ground of lead content in these products were in excess of the permissible limit. Chhagla had argued that though only three variants were tested, the regulators banned all nine variants of Maggi noodles,
It is Nestle India’s endeavour to get Maggi noodles back on the shelves as soon as possible for the benefit of consumers, the company said.
The ban on Maggi had hit Nestle India’s earnings and the company reported a standalone loss of Rs 64.40 crore for the June quarter its first quarterly loss in over three decades. It had posted a net profit of Rs 287.86 crore in April-June of 2014-15.
Tomorrow, the government’s claim for Rs. 640 crore or 99 million dollars in damages from Nestle will be heard by the country’s top consumer forum, the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission, in the first case in India that is being seen as a class-action suit against a multinational. The ruling of the quasi-judicial body will be legally binding.
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