By Malinda Seneviratne –
Watergate is the name given to a political scandal that rocked the United States of America in the early 1970s. It was about a break-in and a cover-up. It led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. The scandal also saw the indictment, trial, conviction and incarceration of 43 persons, dozens of whom were Nixon’s top administration officials.
The above is from Wikipedia. Wikipedia doesn’t have an entry for ‘Milkgate’. The only association between ‘milk’ and ‘gate’ as of now is ‘Cow and Gate’ a UK based dairy products company. In the case of the dairy industry, as opposed to Nixonian ‘intervention’, the only ‘break-in’ we can talk about is markets. We could, or rather we should, add ‘breaking through all cautionary safeguards of communities and individuals. And ‘cover up’ would include lulling into a false sense of security by false and exaggerated claims complemented by deliberate fear-mongering. We could, or rather we should, add ‘purchase’, i.e. of decision-makers (politicians, clearly), approvers (scientists, doctors and their various clubs) and potential critics (media, for example, through pumping in of advertising and the threat of pulling out ads).
There is also litigation; a panel discussion on Jana Handa scheduled for tomorrow (August 12, 2013) on the subject of milk powder contamination has been shelved on the advice of lawyers since there was a court case on Fonterra. The topic was milk powder contamination. If that warrants a no-no, then all poisoners, big and small, can pay someone to take them to court; that would be a cheap criticism-blocker. If that was legitimate, then a stop on advertising should be voluntarily imposed by these companies, ‘because it is in the courts’! These companies usually schedule advertisement for long periods, 3 months, 6 months or even a year. There are big spenders. Having allocated, they can’t withdraw from contractual obligations. The relevant media organization can, in the name of ethics, reimburse. Do they? Will they? If not, they would most certainly be less comfortable in carrying news that is to the detrimental to their ‘friendly’ and ‘generous’ clients.
Last week the Government Medical Officers Association advised the Government to ban certain milk powder brands. This was after the Minister of Technology, Research and Atomic Energy, Patali Champika Ranawaka commissioned ITI to test for DCD in milk powder and the results turned up positive in 4 imported brands. The Nation applauds both the GMOA and the minister, but wonders why an issue which surfaced towards the end of 2012 did not prompt immediate and decisive action by approving/screening authorities in the Ministry of Health.
The Nation encountered the issue of contamination in March 2013 during an exercise to assess the adequacy of labeling laws, which again was prompted by concern over unethical advertising. On March 24, we revealed that contaminated milk powder may have entered the local market. The Consumer Affairs Authority promised to investigate. The Ministry of Health expressed concern. We were told that samples would be tested abroad. The report on the tests is still to be made public.
In April we moved to claims about calcium. Milk powder companies objected; we honored their right of reply and exercised our right to dissect response. We also investigated the health and nutritional claims of milk supplements.
There were mixed signals from health and consumer protection authorities. Some said a man on milk powder from New Zealand was imminent. Some said ‘cleared!’ We were not convinced. When a qualified nutritionist took issue with some comments made by a representative of the Nutrition Society of Sri Lanka, things got even more complicated. The Nutrition Society responded, but only in part. A set of questions put to the Society by The Nation has met with a stony silence.
Meanwhile, the issue was taken up by other sections of the media. Interestingly, though, there was surprising reluctance to name names; ‘surprising’ because names, surnames, addresses, ethnicity and religious faith are routinely tagged to suspects of the pettiest crimes.
The Ministry of Technology Research and Atomic Energy moved, meanwhile. When the results were out, the milk industry took cover under the test recommended by the Health Ministry, pointing out that ITI had used another method. Nothing was said about the arbitrary nature of the ministry recommendation as well as the setting of ‘safe levels’. Certificates from governments in countries where the milk powder came from were thrown in our faces by way of defence.
In the end the Ministry of Health did stand up. We applaud, but only quietly. There are many loopholes, as we pointed out above. Even as we write, we cannot give a guarantee to the consumer that errant companies are not busy channeling milk powder meant for banned brands to back-up brands, we it were.
Now it is all out in the open. The issue is not banning this or that product. The issue is to set in place stringent screening mechanisms to ensure that all food products are safe for consumption. It is about laws that are able to obtain disclosure on conflict of interest from ‘experts’, approvers and health and nutrition practitioners and advocates.
This is a war because we live in a country where it is claimed (in the year 2013, mind you) that the draft National Drug Policy ‘was misplaced’! This is a war because children are the main target and the most vulnerable.
If ever this country required an impetus to develop the local dairy industry, this is it. We wouldn’t have to screen important milk powder for contaminants nor wonder whether certifying authorities are above board if we drank our own milk. Fresh.
*Malinda Seneviratne is the Chief Editor of ‘The Nation’ and his articles can be found at www.malindawords.blogspot.com