Commerce ministry leaves people in the lurch
Instead of issuing a clear message regarding the eight brands of powdered milk, the commerce secretary yesterday said it is up to the people whether or not to feed their babies with the baby formula tested positive for melamine contamination until the government conducts further tests within seven working days.
Asked who would be responsible if consuming the imported milk causes any public health hazard by this time, Commerce Secretary Firoze Ahmed said, "We cannot take that responsibility.
"Everybody knows through the media what has been found in which brands of powdered milk, so why don't we leave it up to the people whether or not to feed these brands to their babies?" Firoze told reporters after an emergency meeting on the eight brands of powdered milk.
Representatives from the commerce, industries and health ministries, Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution (BSTI), private laboratory Plasma Plus, chemistry department of Dhaka University and the powdered milk companies were present at the meeting held at the commerce ministry auditorium.
When The Daily Star contacted Health Adviser AMM Shawkat Ali for his observation on this matter, he however said the commerce secretary's comment was "his own" and that it would be wise to avoid the brands in question.
He said since confusion has arisen surrounding the laboratory tests of these brands at the DU chemistry department, BSTI and Plasma Plus, the government has decided at the meeting to have them tested again at two laboratories at home and a reputed one abroad.
Consumer rights activists and parents, meanwhile, strongly criticised the decision of the commerce ministry meeting, terming it "nothing but the state's attempt to avoid responsibility towards its citizens".
The DU chemistry department had confirmed that in its tests excessive melamine was found in the eight popular brands of powdered milk--Nido fortified instant, Red Cow, Yashili 1 (China), Sweet Baby (China), Diploma, Anline, Yashili 2 (China) and Dano.
But testing four brands, Plasma Plus found the toxic element in one of them and the BSTI, which also conducted the tests separately, confirmed that it was Yashili 1.
After the nearly two-hour long meeting, Firoze Ahmed said they could not give orders to stop sales of these brands because there are still confusions over the laboratory tests of the deciding factor of melamine's presence in these products.
He said a five-member committee has been formed with representatives from the ministries of commerce, industries and health, the BSTI and the powdered milk companies in question and they will collect samples of the same batches of these brands tested earlier for the further testing.
Another 12-member experts committee was formed yesterday to oversee the tests at the laboratories of Bangladesh Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (BCSIR) and Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission (BAEC) and in an accredited laboratory abroad.
The 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 and then the government will take the final decision in this regard.
The committee will check if melamine is really existent in powdered milk of these brands and, if it is there, the level of its presence--whether tolerable or harmful for human health.
Asked if the government can trust the results of the DU tests, Firoze said, "It is not a question of trust. In two tests, melamine was found only in one brand while it was found in all the eight brands in another test. So, obviously all parties have their say."
He said yesterday's meeting also decided to gradually conduct tests of other brands of powdered milk.
Meanwhile, parents and consumers' rights activists said the government was playing foul with the people by trying to avoid responsibilities.
Consumers Association of Bangladesh Senior Programme Officer Emdad Hossain Malek said the government cannot avoid the responsibility for two reasons: first, it is the state's duty to protect its citizens and second, confusion has arisen surrounding products approved by the BSTI which controls the standards of all products.
The government must take a clear decision on the issue...As toxic element has been found in a few brands, it may suggest other brands for the time being, he said.
Sabrina Rahman, a housewife from Mirpur, said she had serious trouble with her two-year-old child as she could not find any safe baby formula.
"I have heard that traders mix toxic chemicals in pasteurised and raw milk too. Please ask the government to arrange import of milk from other countries where it is not tainted," she said, "Or ask the government to provide us with poison and kill us."
Rukhsana Yasmin, a mother from Gendaria, said it is the BSTI that allowed marketing of these eight brands of powdered milk. "Stringent actions should be taken against the officials responsible for it," she said.