“Our studies prove that we are on the brink of a public health catastrophe” | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, July 26, 2019 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, July 26, 2019

“Our studies prove that we are on the brink of a public health catastrophe”

In conversation with Professor ABM Faroque, former director, Biomedical Research Centre, Faculty of Pharmacy, Dhaka University

On June 25, Professor ABM Faroque, the chief investigator of a nine-member research team unveiled that a study found detergent and antibiotics for human-use in several samples of widely sold pasteurised and non-pasteurised milk. His findings were challenged by a senior official of the Ministry of Fisheries and Livestock who threatened that he would file a case against the researchers as they had not published their findings in a peer-reviewed journal. Professor Faroque answered this by conducting a second round of studies on samples of pasteurised and non-pasteurised milk and found antibiotics and detergent in those samples again. According to media reports, sale and consumption of liquid milk has reduced after circulation of the study findings. Professor Faroque has also received threats from government officials, industry owners and policy makers for his research findings. Several of his colleagues from DU’s faculty of pharmacy also jointly published a statement renouncing the findings.   

Through an exclusive interview with Star Weekend, Professor Faroque talked about the scope and significance of his studies, challenges he and other researchers have been facing in the academic arena and his future plans.

What prompted you to conduct a study of this kind on pasteurised and non-pasteurised milk sold in the kitchen markets?

For the last few years, we have been receiving news of widespread food adulteration. Mobile courts of the directorate of national consumer rights protection have been conducting raids against food adulterers but this malicious practice has not been stopped yet. We also noticed that most of these raids are conducted against retailers and small-scale food peddlers. But large food manufacturing companies and their products are rarely brought under scrutiny during those raids. So, we the researchers of the Biomedical Research Centre thought of analysing some popular food products marketed by prominent companies. I, along with my research team, analysed pasteurised and non-pasteurised milk. I personally wanted to conduct an analysis of milk because it’s one of the most important sources of nutrition for our children. Besides regular academic research, the Biomedical Research Centre under DU’s faculty of pharmacy regularly analyses food products, cosmetics and other chemical products which are used on a day to day basis to detect harmful elements. One of our teams is analysing food products to detect the quantity of testing salt; another team is analysing edible oil for harmful elements.

Although this kind of analysis is quite expensive, we never received any funding from any individual or any private company. To analyse liquid milk, we applied for funding to the Ministry of Education (MoE) and ultimately, according to the ministry’s arrangement, Bangladesh Bureau of Educational Information and Statistics (BANBEIS) financially supported our study. MoE asked BANBEIS to support our research because they also felt that this research would be extremely significant for public health.       

What are the implications of your findings on public health?

In the first round of our study we tested seven samples of widely sold pasteurised milk from five brands and three samples of non-pasteurised milk. We found antibiotics used for humans and detergent in those samples. Besides, we also found excessive volume of microbes–10-20 times more than the human tolerance level. When our findings were challenged by some sectors, we conducted a second round of testing because we thought maybe antibiotics and detergent were present only in the samples that were tested in the first research. So, we collected the same number of samples of the same brands from the same area for the second test. We also used the same highly sophisticated, fully automated apparatus and came up with the same result. In fact, in the first test, we found three types of antibiotics and the second time around we found four.

Our studies prove that we are on the brink of a public health catastrophe. Many consumers drink pasteurised or flavoured milk without boiling it.

Consuming those products which have such high volume of microbes can cause a wide range of liver and kidney diseases. Instead of threatening me for the study, the industries could easily minimise the contamination by improving their pasteurisation plant as such contamination is caused by nothing but sheer negligence.

However, the presence of antibiotics in milk indicates to a more serious crisis. According to the current regulations, cattle cannot be milked or slaughtered for consumption within 21 days of applying antibiotics. Presence of antibiotics prove that milk collectors of big companies and the farmers as well are probably not following this regulation. Antibiotics are also used in producing cattle fodder. The most alarming fact is, due to its availability, farmers and fodder manufacturers are using antibiotics that are meant for human consumption. And, our livestock officials are permitting these cattle feeds. We found excessive amount of these antibiotics such as enrofloxacin and ciprofloxacin which can reduce efficiency of these antibiotics and can make our body fatally vulnerable to bacterial and viral infections. We must enforce the law that prohibits selling of antibiotic without registered doctor’s prescription. We should also make our farmers and cattle food producers aware of the harmful impacts of such unrestricted use of antibiotics.        

Instead of revealing your findings in press conference, why didn’t you publish those in peer-reviewed journals?

Publishing research results that are important for public safety can be published in press conference and it is a common practice throughout the world. When researchers found carcinogenic elements in Johnson and Johnson’s products, they revealed it through a press conference. Even in 2011, researchers of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University and Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research found Bird Flu viruses in several poultry samples and they warned about bird flu outbreak thorough a press conference which led to culling chickens. In fact, we conducted this research due to our concern for public health. Testing milk for harmful elements is not a fundamental academic research which has to be published in peer reviewed journal. Also, publishing articles in peer-reviewed journals sometimes take six months to one year and we could not afford such delay in this case. However, we are in the process of sending our reports to several peer-reviewed journals. 

Did you receive any support from the Dhaka University authority?

University of Dhaka has been supporting our activities from the very beginning. We have conducted our tests at DU’s Centre for Advanced Research in Sciences (CARS) which is one of the most technologically advanced laboratories of our country. Various researches done in this laboratory got international patents. So, there cannot be any question regarding the quality of our research. Our honourable vice chancellor has also been supporting and encouraging us from the very beginning. When we were being threatened by various quarters, DU administration stood by us and encouraged us to continue our research. 

As the former director of DU’s Biomedical Research Centre, what are the challenges you have faced to conduct your researches?

The most impeding challenge we have been facing is lack of fund and patronage. Many biomedical researches are highly expensive and industry oriented. In most of the countries, industries support universities to conduct such researches. It is an act of mutual benefit because students and teachers can learn through researches and industries can benefit from the study without recruiting an army of professionals. For instance, through our research on milk, we have actually rendered a great service to the industry. We unearthed their shortcomings on our own expenditure which will help them to produce healthier products and can become more consumer friendly companies. Unfortunately, instead of correcting themselves, they threatened me with extremely offensive words. This sort of culture actually discourages researchers. If such reactions go unchecked, very few researchers will take the risk of conducting research on public health and safety issues.    

What are your future plans?

Thanks to support from most of my colleagues and the university administration, I will continue with my research work. My students and colleagues are taking up new research projects and I would love to guide them in all of their future endeavor. And, whenever I shall find results that are injurious to public health, I shall warn my fellow citizens. I will not back down in face of threats.

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