Milk scandal: Everyone will have to come forward

Ripan Kumar Biswas

It felt like this was supposed to happen as melamine scare has put pressure on fresh milk outlets in the cities of Bangladesh.
Though it's late, but it's good that government is taking action to enforce the High Court (HC) order on stopping the sale and display of all the eight brands of melamine-contaminated powdered infant formula. Earlier on October 23, 2008, HC ordered the government to take immediate action to stop the sale and display of eight brands of milk powder found tainted with melamine till receipt of lab test reports from abroad. As the results of the eight brands of powdered milk sent to FAO in Bangkok for further investigation and are expected to arrive at the end of the current week, the producers or their local agents have not yet announced recall of any of their products and the retailers in the cities has started hiding tainted milk brands from their shelves.
All we know is that good nutrition and a balanced diet help the kids grow up healthy. As infant's health has long been considered one of the most important indicators of the health of a nation as well as the whole world, what are we doing with our infants year after year? We are feeding our infants with melamine-contaminated milk powder! Melamine, which is an organic base chemical and most commonly found in the form of white crystals rich in nitrogen, is widely used in plastics, adhesives, countertops, dishware, or whiteboards. Shame on us!
The '2008 melamine-contaminated milk powder' scandal broke on July 16, 2008 while 16 infants of Gansu Province in China, who had been fed on milk powder produced by Shijiazhuang-based Sanlu Group, were diagnosed with kidney stones. Four infants out of 94,000 victims died from kidney stones and other kidney damage by the end of September. The chemical appeared to have been added to milk in order to cause it to appear to have higher protein content.
Producers of milk powder add water to raw milk to increase its volume. Due to this dilution, protein concentration in the milk becomes lower. Companies using the milk for further production (e.g. of powdered infant formula) normally check the protein level through a test measuring nitrogen content. The addition of melamine increases the nitrogen content of the milk and therefore its apparent protein content. Accused companies in China did the same. Addition of melamine into food is not approved by the FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius (food standard commission), or by any national authorities. As it is one of the largest food safety events in the world in recent years, everyone must believe that adding melamine in the milk was not an isolated accident, but a large-scale intentional activity to deceive consumers for simple, basic, short-term profits.
In 2007, melamine was found in wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate exported from China and used in the manufacture of pet food in the United States. This caused the death of a large number of dogs and cats due to kidney failure. But the present event is more inhuman as melamine contamination has been found in a number of different brands of powdered infant formula, in one brand of a frozen yogurt dessert and in one brand of canned coffee drink. All these products were most probably manufactured using ingredients made from melamine-contaminated milk.
Although there have been no reports so far of sickness attributed to melamine in milk powder in Bangladesh as three of the eight brands of infant milk powder are now being imported from China while the rest are coming from Denmark, Australia and New Zealand, but the BSTI (Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institute), the Department of Chemistry of Dhaka University and Plasma Plus, a private testing laboratory, found presence of toxic melamine in those brands. On September 21, 2008, government first decided to ban procurement, sale and stocking of powdered milk of three Chinese brands milk contaminated with melamine - San Lu, Sun Care and Yashili - following reports of chemical contamination that caused four deaths in China. But later, it hesitated to follow the HC order to stop the sale and display of those eight baby formula brands-- Diploma, Red Cow, Dano, Yashili-1, Yashili-2, Sweet Baby-2, Nido Fortified Instant, and Anlene.
The general people came to know about the horror only a couple of days before, but the producers of those known brand of milk powders might know the adverse effect of the presence of melamine in the milk as melamine can form crystals that can block the small tubes in the kidney potentially stopping the production of urine, causing kidney failure and, in some cases, death.
Observing the adverse situation, WHO again has recommended breastfeeding as the ideal way of providing young infants with the nutrients they need for healthy growth and development. But most of us whether rich or poor, have a mindset that the tinned milk definitely has enough nutrition. Breast milk is the best and safest form of nutrition for infants. Infants and breast milk are designed for each other. Infant formulas have been developed to substitute for breast milk when nursing is impractical or in the unusual instances when it is physically impossible or contraindicated. The goal for infant formulas is to match as closely as possible the composition of human breast milk.
According to Prof Sufia Khatoon of the Institute of Child and Mother Health (IMCH), tinned milk can do nothing here and there is nothing equivalent to breast milk which should be provided uninterruptedly for six months. But only 43 percent of the children fewer than three years were exclusively breastfed, said Bangladesh Demographic and Health Survey 2007. And the rate of infant mortality can be reduced by 13 percent in the country if the rate of exclusive breastfeeding can reach 100 percent. The present infant mortality of Bangladesh is 52.5 percent by the survey of the United Nations Population Division and 57.45 by the CIA World Fact book. The experts stressed that breastfeeding at the first hour of birth could reduce the death of at least 30,000 newborns in the country a year. Around 80 percent of mothers in urban areas feed their infants artificial milk (powder or infant formula) besides breastfeeding, said Dr Fatima Parveen Chowdhury of the Institute of Public Health and Nutrition.
One should encourage mothers to breastfeed their babies because of the multiple benefits to the child, to herself, to her family and to society. We should be kind and supportive to them. Various authorities in government or in public sector should realize the need of neonates as well as the mothers. Under the new proposals in UK on July 20, 2008, the government stated that a mother, breastfeeding a child of six months or less would now be more rigorously protected by law from discrimination. Breastfeeding mothers are also protected in law under the provision of goods, services and facilities.
Starting July 1, 2008, a new law in Indiana, USA is protecting breastfeeding in the workplace. The law applies to businesses with 25 or more employees, as well as the state and political subdivisions of the state. The new law requires employers to provide a private location, other than a toilet stall, where an employee can pump breast milk in privacy. In addition, the employer must either provide a refrigerator (or other cold storage space), or allow the employee to provide their own portable cold storage device, for keeping milk that has been pumped until the end of the employee's work day. Bangladesh can think some of the provision like this.
Bangladesh imports milk products worth million dollars every year. To meet the demand, local liquid milk dairy firms should be encouraged. Research published in 2000 reported that there was a 41.2 ml/day per capita availability of milk compared to the daily requirement of 250 ml in Bangladesh. This means milk production needs to grow by 4.2 5.6% per annum if is to meet the increased demand of an expected 1.6% population growth by 2010. Given the prospect of such a high growth rate in the dairy industry, there is an opportunity for recruitment of many smallholder producers and others involved in milk processing and marketing. In the present situation, a few numbers of liquid milk outlets and small backyard dairy farms are failing to cater to the sudden surge in demand with their limited supplies as melamine scare is sending more and more anxious customers to them.
After going thorough the event, everyone including the government or the private sector should learn the lessons, properly deal with the incidents, bring or change necessary provisions, improve the inspection and supervision systems and strengthen the local dairy industries.

(Ripan Kumar Biswas is a freelance writer based in New York )