NEW DELHI— Nestlé SA stepped up efforts to defend its business in India on Thursday, taking Indian food regulators to court to challenge a ban on the company’s instant noodles, which authorities say contain hazardous levels of lead.
The Swiss food giant has been scrambling to contain the damage since state regulators said last month that they found illegally high amounts of lead in samples of Maggi 2-Minute Noodles—one of Nestlé’s best-selling products in India.
Nestlé Chief Executive Paul Bulcke flew to India last week to project the company’s confidence that the noodles are safe. Nestlé said it has repeatedly tested the noodles and found no evidence that lead exceeded the amount permitted.
The company is now going on the offensive and its Indian arm has asked the Bombay High Court to review an order by India’s national food-safety regulator last week for Maggi to be pulled from store shelves.
Nestlé’s India arm said in a statement that it was raising with the court “issues of interpretation” of some of India’s food-safety rules. It said it would wait for a court decision before starting to sell the noodles again.
- Maggi Fiasco – Not As Simple As It Seems
- Nestlé Recalls Maggi Noodles in India Amid Food Scare
- How Does Lead Get Into Food?
Yudhvir Singh Malik, the chief of the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India, said he hadn’t received formal notice of Nestlé’s court filing and declined to comment Thursday.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has started testing samples of the Nestlé noodles, the company said Thursday. Earlier in the week, Nestlé said Singapore’s food-safety agency had cleared the noodles.
Nestlé announced last Friday that it was recalling the noodles on its own to calm consumer fears shortly before officials banned their sale. India’s food-safety watchdog said the noodles were “unsafe and hazardous for human consumption.”
The food-safety authority also alleged that Nestlé was breaking other rules by selling different noodle variants without government approval.
The authority and Nestlé are fighting over what Indian regulations say about product testing and product approvals. Many in the food industry complain that rules are often unclear and the official government-approval process can be painfully time-consuming and confusing.
The measurement of lead content at the center of the latest dispute is an example. Indian safety regulators say Nestlé noodles contain two main components—noodles and flavor packets. They tested each separately and found that the flavor powder contained too much lead, as measured in parts per million.
Nestlé, in response, said the noodles and powder should have been tested in the form that they are typically consumed: mixed together with hot water. The safety agency dismissed Nestlé’s approach, saying the two components were to be checked “independently.”
Analysts say Nestlé isn’t alone in its uncertainty about product approvals and testing. Earlier this week, the authority listed hundreds of products—many made by international brands—that it said were being sold in India without their approval. And Unilever PLC said Wednesday that it was pulling its own instant noodles from sale in India until further clarity on rules and approvals.
Part of the problem, analysts say, is that India’s food-safety rules are relatively new and often ambiguous.
India’s didn’t have a national authority for food safety until 2008. The latest set of rules governing food standards were drafted in 2011. Under old rules, companies didn’t require product approvals, food-safety experts say.
With confusion about rules and bureaucratic delays, food-safety experts say it can take months—and sometimes years—to receive product approvals.
“We’re all scrambling to understand what the rulebook really says,” said Manish Jain, a consumer-products analyst at Nomura Financial Advisory Services India Ltd. “Right now, everybody is interpreting things in a different way.”
Mr. Malik, the regulatory chief, said India’s rules are clear. “If companies have confusion on product approvals, they should seek clarification from me. We have clarified the process numerous times,” he said.