26 August 2013

Open your mind, watch your gate

It is reported that a ‘Copper Mafia’, operating mainly from Pettah in Colombo, is illegally exporting more than 4 billion rupees worth of copper scrap every year, hoodwinking the Customs Department and the Ministry of Industry and Commerce.  As of now, there’s no mechanism to trace the operation. 

Over the past few weeks among the issues that gripped the interest of ordinary people was that of contaminated milk powder.  The focus, naturally, was on the big player, Fonterra, given its market share, ‘bad news’ from many quarters including China, Russia and New Zealand itself. 
The Nation broke the Milkgate story way back in March 2013.  At the time, sadly, no other media institution was willing to name names. Revenue, potential revenue, sponsorship and potential sponsorship tend to gag not just newspapers but retailers, supermarkets, advertising agencies, approving authorities where disclosure on interest-conflict is unheard of, scientists and other professionals, both in the state as well as private sectors. 

When ITI released test results on random milk powder samples, things changed.  While Fonterra scrambled to control damage, authorities fed general confusion by passing the buck of responsibility and corrective action.  Fonterra didn’t leave one stone unturned to ensure that stocks moved.  Relevant authorities helped by dilly-dallying on decision.  Suspect batches were ordered to be recalled, but the recalling was slow. 

Many did not know (and probably still do not know) that Anchor is only one of Fonterra’s brands.  Weak labeling regulations and weaker enforcement, not to mention a general complacency on things foreign helped Fonterra.  There are those who ask, ‘If Fonterra pulls out, who will fill the vacuum created in terms of demand for milk?’  It is a legitimate question of course but one that is mischievous.  First, are we to give the green light to a suspect milk powder distributor just so that demand is met?  Is it about fulfilling milk powder demand even with contaminated stuff?  Secondly, ‘need’ is a construct; it is created through advertising and false as well as exaggerated claims.  What milk powder is said to contain can be obtained from elsewhere.  
The matter ended in court and that, ladies and gentlemen is a sad indictment on our systems of screening and public safety. 

Milk powder is just one form of processed food which is not what it claims to be.  DCD is not the only chemical compound we should worry about.  Agro chemicals have been found to be a probable cause of Chronic Kidney Disease.  The WHO study has proved Arsenic presence, although the stats on permissible levels mislead by the age old device of averaging. 
The bottom line is inadequate screening. We clearly lack the mechanisms that can ensure that whatever comes in is thoroughly checked.  If this was the case, then investigation by newspapers and demands by a trade union (in this case the GMOA) would not be necessary; determination would defer to the relevant science. 

The scrap copper racket is about exit-point flaw; food contamination is about entry-point flaw (in the case of imported foods).  It is not a matter for courts to decide, it is the responsibility of relevant state agencies.  In the case of systematic poisoning (for example Arsenic), policy can be blamed; the FAO pushed agrochemicals in the name of productivity, development and ironically food security.  The citizens endorsed policy out of faith in policy-maker or ignorance or both.  Both policy-maker and policy-recipient have dozed off at critical points in their respective watches. 
Clearly there are many gates that need to be watched.   Mechanisms should be set in place where there are none, strengthened where strengthening is necessary.  Mechanisms to identify possible loopholes should be complemented by loophole stopping mechanisms.  

Let’s face it, many things can be purchased.  Many people too.  History has shown that vigilant and responsible citizens are physically harmed or even taken out.  In this context it is likely that gates will not be manned by vigilant gatekeepers.  In the end therefore it is incumbent on ordinary people to keep their nose to the ground, keep their eyes and ears open, and if necessary be the gates that they don’t want you to be.  Most importantly, we need to keep constant watch at the gates of our minds.