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     Volume 7 Issue 45 | November 14, 2008 |

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Follow Up

Nagging Questions about Milk

Ershad Kamol


After a month of turmoil people are still confused about the great milk scandal. The controversy regarding melamine detection in powdered milk continues as different testing laboratories detected different levels of the chemical substance. So far the Dhaka University Chemistry Department (DUCM) has detected melamine in samples of all of the eight powdered milk brands provided by Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution (BSTI) for testing, while Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission (BAEC) detected existence of the toxic substance in seven brands. However, four other laboratories-- BSTI, private laboratory Plasma Plus, Bangladesh Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (BCSIR) and an FAO recognised private laboratory in Thailand named Department of Medical Science-- could not detect melamine in the samples of most of the eight brands. People will have to wait yet another month to come to a solution since a High Court (HC) bench last Monday ordered for a third round of tests of samples of all of the available powdered milk brands at DUCD, BAEC and BSTI laboratories. It has also ordered to submit the test results of the controversial eight brands within 21 days from issuing the order. But, it also stayed HC's previous order to stop sales and display of eight brands of 'melamine-contaminated' powdered milk at shops until the final judgment. HC made the order in response to the writ petition filed by Human Rights and Peace for Bangladesh (HRPB).

Four children have died in China after developing kidney stones as a result of drinking contaminated milk, while 53,000 others are currently suffering from kidney failure due to the same reason.

The milk scandal in Bangladesh has revealed the bureaucratic tangle in the government and it's interest to serve only the multinational companies at the cost of public health. The government's hide and seek game on the issue of not disclosing the BAEC test for a whole week and it's unexplained dilly-dallying over the issue raised further questions.

In fact, like most of the inquiry committee formed by the preceding governments, the current caretaker government tried to hide the facts from the public, though it has recently enacted the Right to Information Act. Moreover, government advisers and bureaucrats opting to downplay the top scientists who have detected melamine in milk decided to rely on inexperienced young researchers who could not detect the melamine when testing.


Health and Food Adviser Dr AMM Shawkat Ali said on November 3 that BAEC and the DU chemistry department are not capable of conducting complicated tests like finding melamine in milk. He told The Daily Star referring to the BAEC and DUCD, that these laboratories are not suitable for complicated tests such as detecting melamine in milk. The government also hid the test results of the BAEC laboratory for a week.

Criticising the government's move to keep the BAEC test results hushed up for a week, Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) Chairman Prof Muzaffer Ahmad told The Daily Star, "It's a violation of the Right to Information Act which the government recently enacted. The persons responsible for hiding the information from the public should be put on trial according to the law."

"The government's role in such a complicated public health issue infers its lack of care for it. In fact, the government was hiding the facts for the welfare of the corrupt business community," he said.

Prof Nilufar Nahar, under whose leadership melamine was detected in the eight brands of powdered milk through a test in the DU chemistry department lab, said, "As a scientist I have a global reputation. The government should know my work before dismissing our department's abilities. I invite them to visit our laboratory and urge them to stop talking nonsense."

"The man who conducted the tests in Plasma Plus and the two others who tested the samples in BCSIR had been researchers under my supervision. I know the mistakes they made in their tests. The government should be ashamed of its blatant kowtowing to the interests of the unscrupulous industry, and for pitting novice chemists against the nation's top scientists."

She also questioned the authenticity of the test results from the Thai laboratory, saying, "It's a FAO recognised private laboratory, not FAO's own lab, moreover the report is incomplete." The report of the Thai lab did not elaborate on the methodology of its tests, she explained.

"Local distributors of powdered milk brands should apologise to the public instead of trying to hide the facts, and at the same time they should ask the Chinese company Sanlu to compensate them for the loss of their business," she suggested.

In fact, the fact that the official of Plasma Plus, who is basically a supplier of equipment and trains people on how to operate the equipment, was given the responsibility of conducting tests for the private lab has also raised eyebrows . He advocated for BCSIR and the Thai based private laboratory test results at the press conference and even during the 12-member expert committee, which was formed by the government to monitor the test results.

Meanwhile, following the propaganda by the local distributors of multinational powdered milk companies government agency BSTI has been briefing the media on the 'safe level of melamine contamination', instead of warning the public about its disastrous impact on health, especially on children's health.

However, the counsel of HRPB Advocate Manzil Murshid showed satisfaction at the latest HC verdict. He told The Daily Star, "After the verdict all of the available powdered milk brands will be tested. It has also ordered for the involvement of the experts of DUCD and BAEC in the sample collection committee for the third round of tests, which will make the sample collection process transparent."

"For public health concerns the HC has ordered that all the test reports at six laboratories be published in newspapers. So that people can decide whether to purchase these milk products", he added.

But as the controversy is going on regarding only eight powdered milk brands- Yashili-1, Yashili-2, Sweet Baby-2, Nido Fortified Instant, Anlene, Diploma, Dano Full Cream Milk and Red Cow- people have switched to other powdered milk brands and liquid milk. But, how safe are these milk products?

Bangladesh imported 42,587 tonnes of milk powder from 11 countries in the last fiscal year, 4,747 tonnes of which were from Chinese companies. On top of that, a few companies also import cheap melamine contaminated Chinese powdered milk illegally through unregistered channels.

Recently many newspapers have published reports of individual milk suppliers mixing cheap Chinese powdered milk with liquid cow's milk. Moreover, a few newspapers published reports of mechanism of making 'artificial milk' in the dairy production zone of Pabna and Sirajganj. The reports also reveal that local offices of leading pasteurised milk companies are purchasing such 'milk emulsion' from the individual milkmen.

"It's not milk, rather poison and the toxic ingredients used in the emulsion are more harmful than melamine. Drinking such emulsion liver and kidney will be damaged. It'll create hepatitis A and E in the human body", says Professor Faroque, a teacher of Department of Pharmaceuticals Technology.

He added, "I believe a few corrupt scientists have given such mechanism to the milkmen. With highest priority it should be controlled. Otherwise, we have to face an even worse toxic milk scandal than China."

On top of everything, because of the ongoing melamine issue no drive has been taken against melamine contamination. Corrupt milkmen are selling randomly formalin-contaminated milk in the cities. And the random use of formalin in milk is harmful for both the person who handles the chemical while mixing it in milk and those who drink formalin contaminated milk.

"The vapour of formalin during mixing creates conjunctiva irritation in eye and subsequently affects cornea. Ultimately the user suffers from cataract in the eyes. Moreover, formalin has an adverse impact on lungs of those who mix toxic formalin in milk and face respiratory problems. Besides, formalin creates chronic acerbating in hands which might cause cancer. And drinking formalin-contaminated milk one will face hyper acidity problems, which may turn into ulcer. Moreover, it will affect liver and intestine", said professor Faroque.

Experts are even suggesting avoiding milk products such as formula milk, candies, cheese powder, biscuits, ready-made desserts, and chocolate. As for infants below two years, child specialists suggest avoiding powdered milk altogether and opting for mother's milk. Until all powdered milk is properly tested, this everyday drink will remain suspect in the eyes of the consumers.


.Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2008