"We would like to reassure our South African consumers that the quality and safety of all our products are non-negotiable priorities for us, and our Maggi Noodles are therefore absolutely safe for consumption," Nestlé SA's Media Relations Manager Millicent Molete told Health24.
Indian food authorities in Lucknow asked Nestlé to recall about 200 000 packs of Maggi Noodles after tests showed that it contained elevated levels of lead and traces of Monosodium Glutamate (MSG).
"The alleged incident is only isolated to India and is still under investigation," said Molete.
Different noodle recipes
She told Health24 that Nestlé SA does not use the same recipe for its MAGGI Noodles as Nestlé India.
"We do not use the same recipe. Nestlé is a decentralised company and our products are manufactured locally at our Maggi factory in Babelegi, Tshwane."
Scientists in India claim to have found a lead concentration of 17.2 parts per million (ppm), almost seven times the permissible limit, which ranges between 0.01 ppm and 2.5 ppm.
Lead is a heavy metal that is found naturally in the earth’s crust, said Irene Labuschagne who is a dietician at the Nutrition Information Centre of Stellenbosch University (Nicus).
"It is present in small amounts throughout the environment due to its natural occurrence and its release into the environment by human activities such as mining, smelting and battery manufacturing. Lead in soil can be deposited on or absorbed by plants, including plants grown for food."
Why lead is dangerous
Labuschagne told Health24 excessive exposure to lead can have neurodevelopmental effects. "Exposure to large amounts of lead, whether from food or any other source, can affect numerous body systems including the central nervous system, the kidneys and the immune system."
Labuschagne pointed out that absorption of ingested soluble lead compounds appears to be higher in children than in adults, but absorption is lower in the presence of food.
"In children, chronic exposure to lead, even at low levels, is associated with impaired cognitive function, including reduced IQ, behaviour difficulties and other problems," she said.
The Swiss-based company told Health24 that it will be doing its own investigation into the incident.
Putting safety first
"The quality and safety of our products are the top priorities for our company," said Nestlé Senior Corporate Spokesperson Lydia Méziani.
She reiterated that Nestlé has stringent safety measures in place.
"We have in place strict food safety and quality controls at our Maggi factories, including thorough quality checks at each stage of our raw material sourcing and manufacturing process. This includes comprehensive testing to ensure that Maggi Noodles comply with all applicable food safety laws, as well as our own high standards of quality and safety before they reach our consumers."
She said the company regularly monitors for lead, including testing by accredited laboratories. "These tests have consistently shown lead levels in Maggi Noodles to be within permissible limits."
Responding to the MSG question, Méziani said Nestlé doesn't add MSG to Maggi Noodles sold in India. "However, we use hydrolysed groundnut protein, onion powder and wheat flour to make Maggi Noodles sold in India, which all contain glutamate. We believe that the authorities’ tests may have detected the glutamate which occurs naturally in many foods."
MSG is commonly used as a flavour enhancer and some research indicates that it can cause headaches, chest pain, nausea and lead to damage to the nervous system.