Milk matters

Sunday, 4 August 2013 23:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

IS imported milk powder safe for consumption? Disturbing reports have brought questions of reliable testing and transparency to the fore putting consumers on their guard. Over the weekend international media reported that New Zealand has warned international health authorities of exported dairy products, including infant formula, containing a bacteria that could lead to botulism — a potentially fatal illness. The government has said the contaminated whey protein concentrate, or products using this ingredient, had been exported to Australia, China, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Thailand and Vietnam. Dairy giant Fonterra, which manufactured the product more than a year ago, said eight customers had been advised and were investigating whether any of the affected products was in their supply chains. If necessary, contaminated consumer products would be recalled, the company said in a statement. Even though Sri Lanka is not on the list the report will no doubt set off alarm bells and bring calls for local products to be tested as well. This is all the more important as the New Zealand announcement comes hot on the heels of another contamination worry that has been festering for several months. Apparently despite finding traces of dicyandiamide (DCD) in four imported milk powder samples, no immediate action will be taken to withdraw stocks from the markets as more tests will have to be carried out. Industrial Technology Institute (ITI) Chairman Wimaladharma Abeywickrema was quoted in local media as saying the institute would conduct more tests on imported milk powder samples and might even send some samples to overseas laboratories for more investigation. According to Abeywickrema tests carried out on four varieties of imported milk samples showed that they contained DCD while tests carried on two local samples showed they did not contain the chemical, which is used in some countries to increase grass growth. The Health Ministry also said it would not issue a warning or instruct the withdrawal of imported milk food from the market because the tests carried out in foreign labs on samples sent by the ministry showed they contained no DCD. The ministry said that all imported milk powder were tested for DCD prior to shipment and after the consignment arrived. Tests carried out on 148 samples in SGS Laboratory in Thailand showed there are no harmful substances in them. If test results prove that samples contain DCD, the Health Ministry insists it would not hesitate to ban the sale and use of powdered milk. But other officials have pointed out that the health Ministry only sent samples after the ITI had instructed them to do so and the institution does not have the facilities to test for DCD.   This tug of war between the ITI and the Health Ministry was further widened when the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) charged last Thursday that ITI had detected (DCD) in all of them, but the Health authorities had not taken any action to ban those products. Giving a list of the brands and the results to the media the GMOA insisted that a warning must be issued by the government forthwith calling for consumers to switch to locally produced milk powder. However, such a directive would far outweigh supply and result in massive market shortages. It is clear that the Health Ministry has to make a trustworthily transparent disclosure about the testing while the government has to push ahead to improve capacity and supply chain bottlenecks that are preventing locally produced milk powder and liquid milk from reaching the public at a reasonable price.