India capital bans Nestle noodles in growing lead scare

NEW DELHI - India's capital banned the sale of Nestle instant noodles Wednesday after safety inspectors found high lead levels in packets of the product in two states in a growing food safety scare.

New Delhi's health minister announced the hugely popular snack was banned for 15 days to give Nestle India time to recall and replace tens of thousands of the packets sold in stores throughout the city.

"We have banned the sale of Maggi noodles for 15 days. During this time the company should recall all existing stock and replace it with new stock after all standard checks and procedures," Satyendra Jain told reporters.

Stores across the country stepped up voluntary removal of the product from their shelves on Wednesday after officials said higher than permissible lead levels were found in packets in Delhi and in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.

The Future Group, the country's biggest retailer, said Maggi packet noodles were being removed from its 500 stores "as a precaution" until results of tests being carried out nationwide were known.

"In the interest of consumer sentiment and concerns we have taken Maggi noodles off the shelves from all our stores for the time being," a Future Group spokesperson said.

"We will wait for more clarity from authorities to take any further course of action." Stocks of Nestle India, a subsidiary of Swiss-based giant Nestle, dropped more than 11 per cent in trade on the Bombay Stock Exchange before closing down just over 9.0 per cent on the escalating controversy.

Food inspectors in Uttar Pradesh said late last month they had found high lead levels in two dozen Maggi noodle packets during routine testing, along with flavour enhancer MSG (monosodium glutamate) which is not listed in the ingredients.

The state last weekend filed a criminal complaint against Nestle India over the findings, while a separate petition was filed against Bollywood stars who have advertised the noodles.

Nestle rejects test results

From roadside vendors to middle-class kitchens, instant noodles have long been hugely popular in India, with Nestle a market leader selling millions of the yellow packets.

The discovery prompted numerous other Indian states this week to start carrying out tests in conjunction with the national authorities. "Samples have been tested from all across the country, we are getting the results one by one," food and consumer affairs ministry additional secretary G. Gurucharan told AFP.

"For example, tests in Delhi showed that 10 out of 13 samples contained lead beyond the permissible limits. Once we have all the results, Nestle India will be given an opportunity to explain." Nestle India was not immediately available for comment on the ban in Delhi.

But the company this week said extensive tests conducted in its own laboratory of almost 1,000 batches of noodles, and independent analysis of a further 600 batches, found that all were safe to eat.

"All the results of these internal and external tests show that lead levels are well within the limits specified by food regulations and that Maggi noodles are safe to eat," it said in a statement on its website.

Delhi government officials earlier Wednesday summoned Nestle to explain the levels of lead, excessive intake of which can cause damage including to the kidneys and nervous system.

The southern state of Kerala this week ordered its 1,000 state-run grocery stores to withdraw the product until test results were known.

Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Haryana, Gujarat and Telangana were among other states conducting tests, according to the Press Trust of India.