Kamran Reza Chowdhury
The companies continued producing and marketing condensed milk with palm or soya bean fat
The Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution in 2003 cancelled the licences of four companies for producing so-called condensed milk with expired milk powder and inedible palm stearin instead of milk fat.
The companies confessed to making such adulterated condensed milk in violation of the BSTI's licensing conditions; the condensed milk must contain 8% milk fat, extracted either from cow or buffalo milk.
The companies then demanded making a new standard for them so that they could produce condensed milk with vegetable fat, arguing that such production is seen in Malaysia. Considering the health consequences, the BSTI rejected the appeal, prompting the companies to file a writ petition with the court that is yet to settle the case.
Thus, the companies continued producing and marketing condensed milk with palm or soya bean fat.
“We visited a condensed milk factory in Comilla. The factory was equipped with very good machinery, but we saw sacks of expired imported milk powder which was similar to stone pieces. These out-of-date stone-like powdered milk was crushed into milk powder. Then water, palm stearin (instead of edible palm olin) and sugar were added to the milk powder to make condensed milk,” said Kabir Ahmed, a representative of the Institute of Public Health to the probe body the BSTI formed in 2002 to investigate the malpractices of the condensed milk companies.
“These were simply poisoning the people as the palm stearin is not edible; it is used in detergent making,” he said.
Millions of people across the country, even in the remotest areas, are consuming the so-called condensed milk mainly used in tea stalls and restaurants. People of all ages take the injurious milk which children and elderly people must avoid.
The companies are reluctant to disclose the figures on the sales of the condensed milk. But the harmful condensed milk has replaced the tradition of making tea and coffee with raw milk across the country.
“I use at least five cans of condensed milk every day,” Kalu, a tea stall owner in Chokmuktar Southwest Para, told the Dhaka Tribune. Similar statement came from Chhobi Begum, a tea stall owner in Khulna's Batiaghata area.
Each of the 68,000 villages has at least five tea stalls. A conservative assumption says at least 3.4 lakh jars of condensed milk are sold every day in the villages. It means at least one crore jars of condensed milk are sold per month.
Based on the findings, the BSTI council headed by then (2003) industries minister MK Anwar cancelled the licences of four condensed milk companies: Danish Condensed Milk Bangladesh Ltd, Abul Kahir Condensed Milk Industries Ltd, SA Condensed Milk Ltd and Meghna Condensed Milk Industries Ltd.
In 2007, the military-led interim administration ordered the BSTI to set a new standard allowing palm or soya bean fat in the condensed milk styled Sweetened/Unsweetened Condensed Filled Milk. Since then, at least six companies are producing and marketing the so-called condensed milk.
According to the new licensing conditions (2007), the jar must not claim it to be a condensed milk; it must read Sweetened/Unsweetened Condensed Filled Milk with 22% skimmed milk power. But the companies are marketing the products writing in bold red Sweetened Condensed Milk, with a small black world 'filled' which must be in the heading.
Hitherto, neither the BSTI nor any agency in-charge of ensuring food safety has tested any samples of the condensed milk to check whether the companies are using edible ingredients.
“The writ petition is yet to be settled. But the companies are marketing the milk under new licences that allow use of vegetable fat. We have just made a standard for production of sweetened condensed filled milk. We have no authority to punish them for adulteration,” Taher Jamil, a deputy director (administration), told the Dhaka Tribune.
“At present, we have set standard for around 3,800 products. We can cancel licences and jail them for the 155 items. For adulteration of rest of the products, the government agencies such as the police, the local government bodies, institute of public health and the consumer rights directorate can act in line with the Pure Food Act 2013 and other laws,” he said.
“This is for sure that no company will ever produce condensed milk again as it will not be economically viable”.
BSTI Director (chemistry) Md Akhtaruzzaman told the Dhaka Tribune that the companies were very powerful and it was very difficult to punish them.
“One kilogram of powder milk costs Tk650. So, you can easily understand how we have been doing business. The production cost of one jar of milk costs around Tk25,” said Kazi Hasan, the general manager of the Danish Condensed Milk Bangladesh Limited.
He said his company imported milk powder from Australia, New Zealand and Denmark.
According to the BSTI rule, the companies must use 88 grams of powder milk in 400 gram condensed milk jar, meaning that only the power milk will cost over Tk57. But one container of 397 condensed milk sells at Tk58 in the retail market.
Replying to a Dhaka Tribune question how they could sell 400 gram condensed milk with only Tk58 as one, a representative of Samannaz Condensed Milk Ltd (Goalini), told the Dhaka Tribune: “This is our business secret; there are ways you will not understand.”
Further relaxing conditions
The BSTI has agreed to give further concession to the companies. The 2007 conditions forced the companies to use 22% of power milk in a 397 gram jar that sells at Tk58. This year, testing institution has amended the 2007 conditions, allowing them to prepare the milk with 20% milk power.
“We will place the decision at the BSTI's highest policy-making body headed by the industries minister,” Taher Jamil said, adding that the amended licensing conditions would enable them to punish the companies for violation of conditions.
Partex Group's Danish Condensed Milk Limited, Tasneem Condensed Milk (No1), Meghna Condensed Milk Ltd in Comilla (Fresh), Samannaz Condensed Milk Ltd (Goalini), Sonowara Condensed Milk Limited (Diplomat) and Abul Khayer Condensed Milk Ltd (Starship) are the companies producing such milk in Bangladesh.