The row over cow milk has suddenly died down. But the silence is disquieting rather than reassuring. There is no doubt that the publicity given to the results from laboratory tests has had a most negative impact on milk and milk products. Apparently, business of the large companies responsible for collecting from dairies and individual milk producers on a cooperative basis for pasteurisation in packets has suffered losses but dairies and other producers who solely depend on sale of milk for their livelihoods are the worst sufferers.
Now the eerie silence over the quality of milk is not going to help anyone. There is an overriding need for clarifying the matter so that all -from the man in the street to the highest position in this land - can understand if cow milk here is safe for human health. How are people to consider the episode of laboratory test results? Quite a few prestigious laboratories such as the Bangladesh Agriculture Research Institute, the Bangladesh Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (BCSIC), the Atomic Energy Commission, ICDDR,B, the Plasma Plus and the Waffen Research were given the responsibility for testing the quality of milk. They have found lead and cadmium in milk beyond the accepted level. Before this tests carried out twice at the Biomedical Research Centre, Dhaka University revealed that 10 samples of both pasteurised and non-pasteurised milk had in those the presence of such antibiotics as Oxytetracycline, Enrofloxacin, Ciprofloxacin and Levofloxacin as also detergent.
Now there is no doubt about the competence of these laboratories. But one thing is confusing enough. Only the Biomedical Research Centre of the DU finds antibiotics whereas the other research facilities just lead and cadmium. If samples of a given day vary, this is one thing but when test results of samples collected from same sources on a sustained basis vary widely, that is a completely different thing. There was a need for testing the same samples by different testing laboratories to see if the results were identical.
Such results are sure to confuse public mind. An old political aphorism, 'when you can't convince them, confuse them' seems to have been at work here. The authorities just casually fed the news media that a test result carried in Chennai has found pasteurised and open milk safe for human consumption. But it did not dismiss the test results carried out in the country's reputed laboratories earlier. Results of those laboratory tests were submitted to the High Court in a public-interest litigation. The HC is yet to deliver its verdict. This is where the situation becomes more confusing instead of becoming clear to all. Let everyone wait for HC opinion instead of drawing own conclusions.
However, a report carried in a Bangla contemporary has presented a different version of the status of milk. Experts at the Bangladesh Agriculture University (BAU) have given their views on the presence of antibiotics and other harmful agents in milk. Professors at the Pharmacology Department and the Medicine Department claim that antibiotics on a limited level in milk are not harmful to human health. They explain that milching cows may be treated with antibiotics but although those are from the same generic drug, those used for administering animals are different and when used there is a prescribed period for withdrawal of milk, meat and eggs. Veterinary treatment without non-prescribed medicines is unthinkable because if done, production of milk can be seriously hampered. Dairy farmers are unlikely to invite such dangers.
Many of their arguments seem to be well founded. But when they claim that there is no permission for application of azithromycin and levofloxacin in treatment of livestock in the country and therefore, presence of those antibiotics is impossible, one cannot be sure. This shows that the experts at the BAU express their doubt about the results of the Biomedical Research Centre of the DU. At the same time the BAU professors have questioned the method of collecting samples. According to them, there is no opportunity for mixing lead and antibiotics at the time of processing. If done, the production cost will go up. Further, they claim that the processing companies maintain liaison with the Pharmacology Department as part of education and research and hence it is well aware of the quality such companies maintain.
Such contradictory claims will further confuse the common people. Here is not just an academic subject where claims and counterclaims will go on indefinitely. It is a crucial matter -one that concerns economy, a productive sector with immense potential, livelihoods of a large number of people and above all health of the people. Some competent authority must tell the nation what the exact situation is. Is milk safe or unsafe for human health? There is no scope for skirting around this simple and straight question. The High Court has tried to make the matter clear. But it has to depend on expert opinions and laboratory tests. The latter are making the people confused.
Why? Is there no ground for a unanimous agreement on the part of competent organisations and experts? The public health cannot be compromised. If milk is safe, it is fine. If the truth is unpalatable, let it be. But the public must know the truth. Then energy must be employed for making milk free of all harmful agents. Research and tests must be devoted to doing this. The sooner it is done the better.