Mumbai: In a major relief to Maggi noodles manufacturer Nestle India Ltd, the Bombay High Court today quashed the orders of the Indian food regulators banning the nine variants of noodles in the country after observing that principles of natural justice were not followed.
A division bench of the high court allowed Nestle to go in for fresh testing by sending five samples of each variant of noodles to three independent laboratories in Punjab, Hyderabad and Jaipur which were accredited with National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories (NABL).
These samples 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 these 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, namely Food Safety Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) and Maharashtra’s Food and Drugs Department (FDA), 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.
Also, though only three variants were tested, the regulators banned all nine variants of Maggi noodles, Chhagla had argued.
He had said there was no substance in FSSAI’s allegation about the company destroying evidence by burning Maggi stock. “On the contrary, we have acted on the instructions of the food regulators by destroying Maggi product,” he said.