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     Volume 7 Issue 43 | October 31, 2007 |

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Cover Story

Toxic Milk

After China's devastating milk scandal, Bangladeshi scientists have found traces of the harmful

Melamine, which is full of nitrogen molecules is added in milk, gives the false impression that the products contain high protein content as it is the nitrogen level that indicates the presence of protein (which is high in nitrogen).

substance melamine in eight brands of powdered milk although there are discrepancies in the findings. Which tests are reliable? How long have we been feeding our children this poison? Bangladeshi consumers are desperately waiting for answers.

Ershad Kamol
Photos: Zahedul I Khan

When news about the melamine milk contamination in China, that killed four babies and left over 53,000 sick, was spreading like wildfire, it was only a matter of days before consumers in Bangladesh would start to panic. Bangladesh imports around 4,000 tonnes of milk powder from China, the rest from other countries. Tests at the Dhaka University's Department of Chemistry laboratory, detected that milk from the eight brands of powdered milk had melamine traces in the milk. But the real controversy began when the three different testing laboratories detected different levels of the chemical substance. It was later discovered that only the Department of Chemistry has more efficient equipment to do the tests thus casting doubts about results of the other two institutions. In the end, the results of the Department of Chemistry seemed most acceptable to the public. This lab found melamine traces in eight brands of milk powder. The Government's unexplained dilly-dallying over the issue raised further questions. The discrepancy in test results of the samples, government's lackadaisical response to the crisis has in turn opened up a can of worms. The milk scandal in Bangladesh has revealed the total lack of quality control measures for food products and the overpowering influence of milk powder companies to control the market, sometimes at the cost of public health.

The confusion was compounded further when a few well known brands published advertisements in the newspapers announcing that their own tests conducted abroad had found their products to be completely 'safe', thus rejecting the Dhaka University's Chemistry Department's findings. At the time of writing this report the government had sent samples of milk from the accused 8 brands to FAO labs abroad for testing and the results had not yet arrived. However, a high court bench after, Human Rights and Peace for Bangladesh (HRPB) filed a writ petition, ordered the government to stop sales and display of eight brands of 'melamine-contaminated' powdered milk at shops until it took any decision after receiving test results which is to be conducted at two local and one foreign laboratories. The government was slapped with a contempt petition when it continued to procrastinate from taking action.

On October 15, samples provided by the Bangladesh Standard and Testing Institute (BSTI), DU Chemistry Department handed over the reports to BSTI, although these were rejected by the popular multinational branded powder milk companies, as it differed with the test reports conducted at BSTI laboratory and a private laboratory Plasma Plus.

After detecting toxic melamine in powdered milk experts are
suggesting to avoid other milk products such as sweets.

Later, the chemistry department disclosed their report publicly revealing melamine contamination levels as follows: Australia's Diploma - .23 mg/gm, Red Cow .30 mg/g, Denmark's Dano Full Cream Milk- .04 mg/g, China's Yashili- 1.29 mg/g, Yashili- 2.14 mg/g, Sweet Baby- 2.28mg/g, New Zealand's Nido Fortified Instant- .45 mg/g and Anlene- n.20 mg/g.

After the report of deaths of four children and 53,000 babies having suffered acute kidney failure with several fatalities after drinking melamine contaminated milk in China, BSTI collected samples of eight powdered milk products for testing at three laboratories- BSTI laboratory, Department of Chemistry laboratory and private laboratory Plasma Plus. Last month Bangladesh stopped importing powdered milk from China.

The Chemistry Department detected an 'amorphous powder' form of melamine in the milk samples of all of the eight brands, following the high quality United States Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) guideline of High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) method in the sophisticated GC-MS machine.

"We are confident about the results of our tests detecting melamine in the samples of powdered milk provided by BSTI," says Professor Nilufar Nahar, under whose leadership the tests were conducted at the Chemistry Department. "And in the case of the same samples and same method the result will always be the same at any laboratory of the world", she adds.

On the other hand, Plasma Plus and BSTI detected melamine only in one Chinese brand Yashili 1, though last month, Chinese authorities had alerted Bangladesh of the existence of harmful substances in the products of the two companies Sun Care and Yashili that produce Sweet Baby, Yashili 1 and Yashili 2.

Instead of giving any guidelines for the people, the welfare secretary of Ministry of commerce declared for a retesting the powdered milk products at the laboratories of Bangladesh Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (BCSIR) and Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission (BAEC) and in Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) laboratory.

Professor Abed Hossain Mollah
Professor ABM Faroque

In response to the rejection of the test reports by the Department of Chemistry by the local agents of the powder milk companies and the controversy over the results, the government formed a five-member committee with representatives from the ministries of commerce, industries and health, the BSTI and the powdered milk companies in question, to collect samples of the eight brands from the local market for retesting at the laboratories of Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission (BAEC) and in Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) laboratory.

Another 12-member committee comprised of experts from the DU chemistry department, BAEC, BSCIR, Plasma Plus, BSTI and the health ministry will give their opinions on the basis of the tests after which the government will take the final decision in this regard.

Mysteriously, the government ignored the advice of the UN agencies FAO, WHO and Unicef of removing all melamine contaminated milk products from the shelves of markets as soon as the tests confirm the unsafe levels of contamination. UN also offered support for authentic tests of the samples sent abroad.

The government's lethargy regarding such a crisis was severely criticised by the citizens and human rights organisations such as Human Rights and Peace for Bangladesh (HRPB), Consumers Association of Bangladesh (CAB), Save the Environment Movement (SEM), Bangladesh Neonatal and Forum.

GC FID-- Tri methyl silylderivate of melamine LC PDA-- Identification and quantification of melamine
Freeze-dryer-- Drying liquid milk from a cow into powder form Ultrasonic bath-- Extraction of melamine from milk powder through
ultra sonic process.

Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) Chairman Professor Muzaffer Ahmad says, "Government is playing a suspicious role. It should have taken bold action. To me the current government's stand on melamine scandal is nothing but a step for interest of the multinational business companies and definitely against the public interest."

Interestingly instead of explaining the cause of adding toxic chemical in milk the government agency BSTI scientists briefed the press on the acceptable intake of melamine in milk.

According to Azmal Hossain, director general of BSTI, the presence of up to .001mg (milligram) of melamine per gram of milk consumed is considered 'safe' for children, and .0025mg per gram of milk for adults. But, the DG could not confirm any source of the acceptable daily intake of melamine in the human body. "We have found that on the Internet," he explains when asked for the source of this information.

"Melamine is not a part of milk, nor a preserving agent, nor a testing agent not even a flavouring agent," says Professor Nilufar Nahar. "It is rather an artificial indigent, which is usually used for making plastics in the industry. Then what is its connection with natural food milk?" she demands.

Rejecting the DG's comment Professor Nahar says, "Let alone toxic chemical melamine except 22 essential proteins, the natural proteins are also harmful for health. So there cannot be any minimum acceptable rate of melamine in milk products."

Professor Nilufar Nahar

Professor Nahar further says, "Even in the era of globalisation so far we have not heard of any such study on acceptable daily intake for melamine published in any recognised journal."

According to Professor Nahar, melamine, which is full of nitrogen molecules is added in milk, gives the false impression that the products contain high protein content as it is the nitrogen level that indicates the presence of protein (which is high in nitrogen). "The number of nitrogen is six in melamine, which is very high. Multiplying the number of nitrogen by 6.25, the protein rate is detected. Adding toxic melamine with milk they want their milk to (look like) it contains high protein," she says.

"Melamine as a soluble amorphous powder form in milk is blamed for causing several renal problems and kidney stones," says Professor ABM Faroque, a teacher of the Department of Pharmaceutical Technology, "as it tends to deposit itself in the kidney, which cannot be removed from the system with urine. But, acceptable intake of insoluble 'Melamine Formaldehyde' resin used for industrial use passes through stool."

Professor Faroque blames the multinational companies for confusing people regarding the acceptable intake of melamine in the human body. According to him, rich countries fix these types of minimum levels for the interest of their business. In fact, developed countries disclose such studies to sell their substandard products in poor countries.

"I can remember after the Chernobyl disaster of the nuclear reactor", says Faroque, "an acceptable daily intake was set for radiation as 0.1 bacqerel per litre of milk."

Not so pure any more

"But the reality is that the radiated milk was sold only in the poor countries at cheaper rates. More than that, it's really difficult to follow the acceptable daily intake level," he adds. The biggest hurdle in getting to the real facts regarding such contamination is the fact that there is not enough data available about things like the long term effects of consuming these substances and how much of it can cause damage to health. "It takes at least a couple of years for an acceptable toxicological study. Melamine in milk is a very recent issue, then how can we get a logical acceptable daily intake of melamine in the human body?"

Meanwhile local agents of the multinational powder milk companies, rejecting the chemistry department report published advertisements featuring their products are totally safe. Nestlé Bangladesh, which manufactures Nido Fortified Instant, advertised in the newspapers claiming their products to be totally 'safe' featuring the test reports of the samples provided by the company at the foreign laboratories of their own choice.

Managing Director of Nestle Bangladesh, Laurent Therond says, "We sent the samples for retesting at three foreign ISO approved laboratories, collecting from the same batch from the local market that was detected melamine positive by the chemistry department. Testing with highly sophisticated HPLC/MS/MS machine the test report conducted in Thailand revealed that the samples are melamine free."

"Showing respect to the court decision we are not marketing our products," he adds. "We will wait until the government makes the final decision on basis of retesting reports. We are well concerned about the public health safety."

But, experts believe that there is every possibility of the existence of melamine even in non-Chinese brands, as many of these multinational companies purchase milk from China. Professor Faroque says, "Nestle purchases milk from New Zealand dairy giants Fonterra which purchase milk from Sanlu, the company which is infamous for the recent melamine milk disaster in China. Even, melamine was detected in Nestle brands in Taiwan."

Laurent Therond responds to this by saying, "First of all it is to be mentioned that Nestle Bangladesh Limited do not sell products of Chinese origin. Fonterra has 43 per cent share with Sanlu. But, these products are sold in the Chinese belt. Even the level of melamine detected in Taiwan was below the dangerous level. However, Nestle for its reputation took bold action against it and warned its Chinese counterpart through government channels. Even Fonterra is reviewing the contract with Sanlu."

But what exactly is 'acceptable intake' of a toxic substance like melamine in milk? On behalf of the MD, Quality Analyst Manager of Nestle Bangladesh Limited, Charanjeev Singh Kohli says, "The whole world is now fixing their norms of acceptable daily intake, which is at present set as 10 gram per kilogram, considering the reality as the individual farmers all over the world adulterate milk with cheap elements. And the big giants collect milk from the individual farmers. In China, the individual farmers adulterate milk with melamine as milk is sold in China on the basis of protein (content)."

"But, we don't want to misguide our consumer on the acceptable daily intake issue. Our stand is very clear that we don't sell any milk product of Chinese origin in Bangladesh", he adds.

Local dairy farms cannot cope withe the sudden increase in the
demand for fresh milk.

Child specialists meanwhile have a different solution for the public, especially for infants. They suggest avoiding powder milk altogether and opting for breastfeeding the baby till the age of two. Paediatricians recommend exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months and then breastfeeding and supplementary foods until the age of two.

Child specialist Abed Hossain Mollah, a professor of Dhaka Medical College Hospital says, "Even before detecting melamine in milk we advised the mothers not to feed their babies powdered milk. According to the Infant and Young Child Feeding (IYCF), the guideline formed jointly by WHO and Unicef, children below two years of age should never be fed any type of artificial milk. Along with breast milk, the child should be given natural food like khichuri, eggs and fruits."

The most compelling argument for milk is that it provides calcium essential for a child's growth and bone development. So if they cannot get good, pure milk, from where will they get the calcium? "Milk is not the only source of calcium," says Professor Mollah. "Other calcium sources such as fish, meat and chicken with khichuri are sufficient to provide the calcium.

Professor Mollah also suggests avoiding baby cereals and pasteurised milk and even available dairy milk for infants. He says, "Till six months age only breast milk is the food for should be given to infants. Not even water or baby cereals should be given, suggests IYCF. And there is every possibility of mixing toxic formaline and contaminated water with dairy milk. Then why should the risk be taken?"

"Sometimes the mothers add shuji with milk to feed the babies considering that the food will be kept in the stomach for a long time and the babies will not cry. In fact, it's a total misconception. This type of food contains higher carbohydrate and lower protein, which increases the water level in the babies' body and subsequently they become weak and sick. If only this type of food is given to the babies, it will make the babies ill, as such food contains higher carbohydrate and lower protein" he adds.

Many conscious citizens have stopped buying any powdered milk products from the market and are switching to pasteurised milk or milk from individual fresh milk suppliers. But, experts are alerting them even to avoid those after newspapers published reports of mixing substandard powder milk with liquid milk in Bangladesh. Experts are even suggesting avoiding milk products such as formula milk, candies, cheese powder, biscuits, ready-made desserts, and chocolate.

Bangladesh imported 42,587 tonnes of milk powder from 11 countries in the last fiscal year. Of this, 4,747 tonnes of milk was imported from Chinese companies. In the last three months, Bangladesh has imported 6,660 tonnes milk from different countries. However, there is no data on the amount of importing milk powder illegally through unregistered channels. Without any registration, a few companies import cheap Chinese melamine initiated proceedings against five such illegal importers. But, the figure is very important since without any registrations a few companies import cheap Chinese melamine contaminated powdered milk. In this connection the government recently initiated proceeding against five such illegal importers.

"There is every possibility of mixing cheap Chinese milk in milk produced food items and even in liquid and pasteurised milk, as data says we don't produce as much milk as per the requirement for such productions," warns Professor Faroque.

He even raises the question about why only eight brands out of 50 available powder milk brands have been sent abroad for further testing. Criticising the government Professor Faroque says, "When foreign agencies such as FAO, WHO and Unicef have offered the government for giving support for food safety why is the government instead of taking the opportunity still inactive? They should send all the food items to be tested abroad."

Though there have been no reports of sickness attributed to melamine in milk in Bangladesh, observers believe that it will take much time to fix the melamine contamination milk issue. There is scepticism about objectivity of the five-member committee that the government formed to collect samples of the same batches of powdered milk tested earlier to initiate more tests at home and abroad as they include representatives from the ministries of commerce, industries and health, the BSTI and the milk companies.

The members in the committee include representatives of accused milk companies and government bureaucrats.

The enormity of the problem has raised many other issues. Should we be so dependent on powdered milk? Experts have clearly expressed that there are far better and safer alternatives for infants especially. But what about children over two years old and adults, for whom milk is an essential part of the diet?

Promoting local dairies to provide fresh milk with strict monitoring mechanisms from the state seems to be the best possible long-term solution. Countries all over the world have invested in local dairies, so that children and adults get fresh milk everyday. There was a time when we in Bangladesh were quite used to drinking fresh milk from the local distributor but lack of adequate state support and the strong lobby from powder milk companies, have meant that local diary farms have not thrived.

Dairies like Milk Vita, Aarong Milk and others are trying to provide fresh milk but the public must be sure that this is not adulterated with melamine or any other foreign substance. Obviously state mechanisms that monitor food quality have to be stricter and more efficient. The confusion created by different test results from different testing bodies - two of them being state owned - points to the utter disregard for public health. We must have our own fully equipped, efficient and reliable testing laboratories to detect food contamination. Until that is ensured, there is always the possibility that what we consider to be food may actually turn out to be poison.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2008