India's government has filed for damages from food group Nestle after a food scare involving reports of excess lead in Maggi noodles forced a nationwide recall, government officials said on Sunday, June 7.
"It's a serious matter concerning public health and the law allows us to take suo moto legal steps, or legal actions, against erring entities," said one official in the consumer affairs department of the food ministry.
The claim, made on behalf of Indian consumers, was not filed through the courts but with the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (NCDRC), which has semi-judicial powers and will decide on the merits of the case and the size of any damages.
The officials said Nestle was being accused of unfair trade practices, adding this is the first case in which the Indian government has sought damages from a multinational.
A Nestle spokesman in India said the company had not received any official notification as of Sunday, and could not comment. The food ministry sources said NCDRC would notify the company when the case comes up, likely next week.
Nestle has been under fire in India since one regional regulator said in May that it had found evidence of excess lead and monosodium glutamate (MSG) in some packets of Maggi instant noodles, a cheap and hugely popular snack.
Since then, several state regulators have followed, and Nestle said early on Friday, June 5, that it would temporarily withdraw all Maggi noodles from the country's shelves, though it reiterated the products were safe.
Total Maggi sales in India, including sauces and condiments, account for less than 1 percent of Nestle's group annual sales, but brand damage could be significant in a country where the noodles are ubiquitous, in homes and roadside eateries.
Nestle fielded its global chief executive on Friday, to help quell one India's most high profile food scares in a decade. Indian newspapers reported separately on Sunday, June 7, that the national food safety agency planned to inspect all Nestle's manufacturing facilities across India as a result of the scare. Nestle has eight factories in India, though not all produce Maggi.
Calls to the agency's office went unanswered on Sunday.