A recent report published by a local newspaper had us sitting up on our proverbial chairs. Titled “Study finds carcinogenic element creating whitening agents in detergents,” it was about a research study that said that almost all the detergent brands available in the market contain a fabric whiter, called fluorescent whitening agent (FWA), which can lead to severe health repercussions for the users. The agent can cause allergy, skin diseases, kidney diseases, gene-related complications and even lead to carcinogenic reactions in human bodies!
Another report is also currently doing the rounds on the Internet: it says that traces of detergent have been found in batches of pasteurised packaged milk. This new report triggers the inevitable question: what if the detergents found in milk samples contained this same fluorescent whitening agent? If this agent can cause so much damage only though external contact, what havoc can it wreck if consumed by humans?
Another question follows, quite logically: for how long had we been consuming contaminated milk, and why did the concerned authorities—read Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution (BSTI)—not test milk earlier for cadmium, antibiotics and other harmful elements found in recent tests run on our milk supplies?
While there is no concrete answer to the first set of questions, the second question can be explained easily. BSTI’s milk testing parameters are 17 years old. The government agency for controlling the standard of service and quality of goods, as per parameters set in 2002, can only test milk for nine variables, while developed countries can test milk against 20 to 30 parameters. And the nine parameters in question are some of the most basics of tests, like percentage of milk fat, milk protein, solubility and coliform, among others.
Our next-door neighbour India, for example, can test milk against 23 quality and chemical parameters and 18 chemical adulterants, while in terms of detection of pesticides in food times, it can detect up to 300 different kinds. Singapore, on the other hand, can detect up to 500 different types of pesticides in food items.
The BSTI’s website says that it is the “National Standards Body (NSB) in Bangladesh.” And nearly “1,000 experts from government, academic, research, consumer, NGO and standards application bodies bring their expertise to the standardization process.” The website further states, “BSTI is the member of ISO since 1974, IEC Affiliate Plus member since 2012 and National Codex Contact Point (NCCP) of Codex Alimentarius Commission in Bangladesh since 1975 as well as the member of South Asian Regional Standards Organization (SARSO), which is the regional standards organization of SAARC countries.”
One wonders why—despite having so many resources, and association with so many bodies, including the SARSO—BSTI could not realise that its milk testing parameters were outdated, to say the least, and therefore needed to be revised. Why did the concerned government bodies not review the parameters in the last 17 years? One needs only to look at the milk testing parameters of our neighbouring countries to identify which new parameters need to be brought under BSTI’s jurisdiction to test milk.
And if BSTI is not authorised or equipped to test the presence of heavy metal, chemical, antibiotic contamination in milk, then on what basis can they certify that a milk brand is safe for human consumption? With these questions in mind, when a BSTI senior official involved with the milk standard testing issue was contacted, he declined to entertain the questions.
Prof ABM Faroque, the immediate past director of Biomedical Research Centre at the Faculty of Pharmacy, Dhaka University, who on June 25 unveiled a study that found detergent and three different types of antibiotics in milk certified by BSTI, said that milk testing parameters should be reviewed and revised every five years in order to make milk standard testing up-to-date, and get it up to par with international standards.
Unfortunately, Prof Faroque had to face severe backlash from various quarters, including a government official, who threatened to take legal action against him after the study findings were made public. Wasi Uddin, an additional secretary at the Department of Livestock Services, was reported to have said, “Bring the publication to the ministry within a week if you have published the findings in a peer-reviewed journal. Otherwise, legal actions will be taken against you.”
It has also been suggested that Prof Faroque is working for “vested quarters” to destroy Bangladesh’s dairy industry. Such belligerent commentary from various quarters is not only disappointing but also alarming, since it reflects the inability of these quarters to take the study findings of Biomedical Research Centre constructively and seek the way forward to address these problems to strengthen standards compliance in the dairy industry.
But can detection alone solve the problem of adulterated milk? Taufiqur Rahman, former director of BRAC Dairy, suggested that while detergent and fat contamination can be done artificially, the heavy metal and pesticides reported to have been found in milk are a form of natural adulteration or contamination. The cows are fed normal drinking water which at times contains heavy metal elements; cow feed may also contain antibiotics and other harmful elements which are ingested in cow milk. Often, cows are fed antibiotics to treat mastitis. Veterinarians recommend that cows on antibiotic should not be milked, but unscrupulous individuals often do not pay heed to their advice and sell contaminated cow milk to customers.
This brings us to the issue of milk value chain in Bangladesh. While BSTI can set standards for milk quality, it cannot, however, oversee the supply chain, claim industry sources. Strict monitoring and compliance measures are required to ensure that milk being supplied by the dairy farmers is safe for consumption. The government must come forward with guidelines and enforcement procedures in order to make sure the supply chain process meets the basic standards.
With the test results suggesting that milk is contaminated and adulterated, it is now essential for the authorities concerned to realise that it is not the right time for bickering. It is time for action—action to initiate drives and programmes with the concerted efforts of all, including relevant government agencies, private dairy businesses, and non-government organisations working in this field, to educate our farmers on the importance of healthy and controlled rearing of cows. It is time to empower BSTI with the right equipment to test milk for all relevant contamination and adulteration possibilities. Otherwise, reports such as these will come and go, sacrificed at the altar of the nation’s chronic short attention span.
Tasneem Tayeb works for The Daily Star. Her Twitter handle is @TayebTasneem.