The main issue that has dogged the milk debate in Sri Lanka has been the need to increase local production and reduce dependence on imported milk powder. The Finance Ministry since last year has emphasised the need to curb milk imports to save foreign exchange and provide incentives to increase local production. Sri Lanka spent [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Milk issue: Don’t scare the people


The main issue that has dogged the milk debate in Sri Lanka has been the need to increase local production and reduce dependence on imported milk powder.

The Finance Ministry since last year has emphasised the need to curb milk imports to save foreign exchange and provide incentives to increase local production. Sri Lanka spent US$ 307 million on 79.4 million kg of imported milk powder last year, down from $345 million and 84 million kg in 2011, according to Central Bank statistics.

While increasing local production and reducing imported milk has been an ongoing debate for many years the latest developments arising out of the issue of contaminated milk is extremely worrying.

Ever since DCD was found to have contaminated a batch of milk produced by New Zealand-based Fonterra, Sri Lankan consumers are being repeatedly confronted with the safety of their milk.

That issue has now taken a totally different and highly irrelevant twist and turn with consumers being told milk is not an essential part of their nutrition. Consumers can do without milk and obtain those nutrients from another source, the public has been advised!
This was the message by a group including eminent doctors during a media briefing on Wednesday. Are Sri Lankan medical and nutritional experts and other professionals involved in this debate going bonkers without realising the consequences of their gut-reaction pronouncements?

For more than half a century, milk has been part of the daily diet of a Sri Lankan family be it in the village, in towns or cities. In the village, the supply came from rearing cows in the garden until the multinational milk powder lobby broke that culture and instilled a milk powder lifestyle in the village and the cities.

In the 1960s and 1970s liquid milk by the National Milk Board (now Milco) was popular among urbanites with bottled milk (which had a shelf life of three days) being distributed through ‘milk bars’ or supplied to homes. Chocolate or vanilla flavoured milk was popular among school children who frequented ‘milk bars’ in major towns. With the open market economy in 1977, imported milk powder was popularised by the multinationals across the country and villagers relying on fresh milk from home garden cows also shifted to milk powder. ‘Milk Bars’ either vanished or lost their popularity.

Since then governments and doctors have promoted the milk drinking culture as a nutritional need for a family, irrespective of whether it is fresh milk or powdered milk. For decades Sri Lankans have been advised medically or by their elders about the value of drinking milk.

On the other hand UNICEF and the medical profession have been advising mothers that breast milk is essential for growing infants if not up to five years, at least for the first two years. Medical experts have also rejected claims by multinationals that osteoporosis (weakened bones) could be solved by drinking a special milk, when such nutrients are contained in green leaves and other sources. Fair enough!

But the latest missile, and mind you from the very profession that has been silent on the value of drinking milk for many years, has jumped into the debate saying “milk is not essential for your daily diet.” This important announcement on Wednesday was preceded by a briefing on Monday by three home-grown entrepreneurs, none of who are involved in the milk industry, where the need to do away with milk powder imports and increase local milk production was espoused.

They were re-iterating an issue that has been in the public domain for years but there was no mention by these entrepreneurs on whether milk is essential or not in one’s daily diet though the group was aware of a briefing taking place on Wednesday and the key message being conveyed there.

The question that needs to be asked is that are these doctors and business professionals saying they don’t use milk (whether local or imported) in their daily consumption? Do they feed themselves and their children plain tea and get the nutrient content from other sources as they espouse in public?

Are the three entrepreneurs and their supporters on this issue consuming only locally produced milk now and in the past?
Forget the contamination issue; Forget Fonterra; Forget Maliban and Australian-sourced milk (it’s very strange for Australian milk to be targeted when Australia has specifically said it doesn’t use DCD); Forget all the contaminated and imported milk powder debate and ask: Why are the doctors saying milk is not important to our daily food intake?

The timing of the media briefings by entrepreneurs and medical experts (both in the same week) raises many unanswered questions on whether this is part of some campaign that has a different agenda.

All over the world people are consuming milk as part of their daily food intake. It may be liquid milk; still milk is being consumed. Sri Lanka must be the only country in the world where the public is being advised that milk is not a necessity.

And who gets affected by these misleading messages? The poor, always the poor, not the rich and upper middle classes in society!
A Business Times poll soon after the November 2012 budget was presented drew this comment from an office worker (during a street interview) who lives outside Colombo: “Though the excuse is to improve local milk production it would take many years for local milk to meet the demand. Again the poor man suffers,” he said.

Sri Lankans (from all sides of the spectrum) lived in fear during nearly 30 years of war. That thankfully ended due to the efforts of the President.

Now fear is once again creeping in another form – in the food that Sri Lankans consume. Is it safe; are people to believe these ad hoc messages from various segments? In this scenario, invariably the poor suffers not the message-bearers in Colombo.

If business professionals are espousing the need to stop milk powder imports and increase local production, then (if) the government thinks alike (and it does in this case), a clear plan on how local production would increase to meet 60 per cent of the milk needs which is imported, needs to be announced. Such a plan should take into consideration a gradual phasing out of imports (not an immediate stop) while local production increases to ensure there is no shortage in the market.

If the medical profession (or sections of the medical profession because others doctor are horrified by what their colleagues have said) believes that milk is not a requirement in one’s daily diet, then the government (if it endorses this view) must publicly say so or if not in agreement must inform the public accordingly.

The milk debate has taken a radical turn and confused the people more. Thus it is imperative that the Government declares whether milk is essential or not. If it is not essential, then even local production need not be geared towards the Government’s own target of being self-sufficient in milk needs by 2016! Furthermore the Government also needs to explain why it ran a massive public campaign, including hoardings, using sportspersons and artistes last year to popularise milk drinking, if it believes what sections of the medical profession are now saying..

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