Ayurvedic brand Patanjali’s soaring success has also brought with it a number of controversies.
The latest crisis comes via India’s Canteen Stores Department (CSD), a massive network of shops catering to members of the military forces and their families, which withdrew Patanjali’s famed amla (gooseberry) juice from its stores after batches of the product were found to be unfit for consumption. The news was first reported by The Economic Times newspaper on April 24.
Earlier this month, the CSD issued a show cause notice to the Haridwar-based company after its product failed to clear a laboratory test conducted by the West Bengal Public Health Laboratory in Kolkata. The juice—one of the earliest launches of the Rs5,000-crore consumer goods giant—has since been unavailable at the CSD’s 3,900 stores across the country.
And that has revived the battle between Patanjali and India’s regulatory authorities which have been at loggerheads over the process of testing and labelling food products in the country.
Patanjali says its amla juice lies outside the ambit of food laws since it is a medicinal product and not a fruit juice. As a result, it believes, the beverage shouldn’t be reviewed under the guidelines laid out by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI).
“Patanjali amla juice is not a food product, it is a proprietary ayurvedic medicine sold by Patanjali,” a company spokesperson told Quartz in an email. “The licence of the product has been cleared by the Uttarakhand department of the ministry of AYUSH (Ayurveda, yoga & naturopathy, Unani, Siddha, and homoeopathy). As a result, the product needs to be consumed for medicinal purposes and not as a food product.”
The spokesperson added that the amla juice had been tested in both government and non-government labs, as well as Patanjali’s own food lab, before being sold in the market.
Over the years, Patanjali, which sells everything from herbal soaps to cooking oil, has come under fire from the FSSAI several times, first for launching its atta noodles without approval, and then for allegedly misleading consumers with the claims of some of its products. In 2015, another controversy erupted when batches of its cow ghee were found to contain fungus, though the company later dismissed these allegations.
Patanjali believes the problem lies in the lack of clarity in India’s food labelling laws. In a recent conference held in New Delhi, the company’s CEO, Acharya Balkrishna, made a case for simpler and clearer rules for food labelling.
Referring to a past instance when a Patanjali product was accused of being adulterated, Balkrishna blamed the guidelines on its packages instead, saying in Hindi, “The product was fine except for a grammatical error on the packaging …this is why definitions should be clear.”
India’s FSSAI has been tightening the noose around companies when it comes to food packaging and labelling laws, asking them to list out ingredients and nutritional information to ensure that they don’t make claims they can’t substantiate. And that’s led to a constant tug-of-war between the regulator and companies such as Patanjali.
The company, however, is confident that its gooseberry juice will soon make a triumphant return.
“We have also written to the CSD explaining this. Patanjali amla juice will be back to CSD shelves soon,” a spokesperson told the Mint newspaper.