12 August 2013

Self-sufficiency the best response

A judge cannot, or rather is not supposed to, sit in judgment on himself or herself.  That’s called ‘conflict of interest’.  Take any Annual Report of any large company or business entity that aspires to become a bigger player in the relevant field and you will find a section on ‘Corporate Governance’, where statements are made pertaining to compliance.  These include disclosures by decision-makers about stakes in the company, either through ownership or association with owners.  

We could call this the Nadu-badu Factor following the pithy and wry descriptive in Sinhala of ‘conflict of interest’, naduth haamuduruwange, baduth haamudurwange (the issue and determination both are in the hands of the determinant). 
Certain things are not disclosed for obvious reasons.  Like theft, for example.  It is up to the victim to make known the fact of theft and up to the law to apprehend thief and recover stolen goods.  Now, when law maker and law enforcer are accessories after the fact of theft, the victim is rendered helpless.  We have a culture of law and law enforcement that is buttressed by a flawed institutional arrangement whose correction is dependent on exploiters of loophole.  We could re-name Sri Lanka as ‘Impunity’ and that would be a decent descriptive and a reflection of the state-of-affairs; we would be honest, if not anything else if this were done. 

Be that as it may, there are can-be-done things and it is in this context that conflict of interest has to be examined. 
The GMOA demanded that milk powders suspected of contamination be taken off the shelves immediately.  The GMOA has to be lauded for taking up the issue and so too should the Minister of Technology Research and Atomic Energy, Patali Champika Ranawaka for employing the resources of his ministry to conduct the relevant tests.  On the other hand, the issue was first raised by The Nation in March 2013.  Assurances were given, statements were released.  It took almost a year, however, since the contamination issue first came up, for authorities to act.  The GMOA is a powerful trade union and that muscle probably swayed government decision, but decision should have been made on the basis of scientific fact and not political nudge.  Why not?  One of the errant companies has been caught bribing sanctioning authorities in other countries; there is no reason why they would shy away from oiling a few palms here since profit and not good-health is what they are about, never mind claims to the latter. 

The GMOA states that a ministry official is in the pay of sections of the milk industry.  Who will investigate? Will investigator have the will or will investigative zeal be purchased?  Will the GMOA carry out its own investigations about members who have received sponsorship from the errant parties?  How about the nadu-badu factor of approvers, for example the Nutrition Society of Sri Lanka?  Are the authorities alert and equipped to investigate if the errant company is stuffing its back-up brands that have not been named and shamed with the milk powder that was meant to go into the containers of the banned brand?
It is clear that this is not a simple matter of a minor error in process.  One of the banned brands owned 75% percent of the market, ironically securing it courtesy of the hit that European brands took after the Chernobyl disaster.  That’s a lot of contaminated milk powder that the nation has consumed, assuming of course that the product was all pure, all fresh, and all wholesome as the advertising claims.  The problem is serious because we are talking about the nation’s children being put at risk.  It is all the more serious because of the nadu-badu factor that has crippled the authorities tasked to screen and protect the consumer, if necessary with the imposition of bans. 

There’s no way around this.  The President, a strong advocate of moving towards self-sufficiency in milk, has to initiate a thorough investigation, including a comprehensive audit of the errant companies.  Those who received money and/or gift have to be named and shamed. 
Milk Gate has taught us other things.  We should be cautious about believing what we are told.  We should look at labels, especially what’s in the small print (that’s what we are not meant to see). We should demand better labeling laws.  We should look for alternatives.

For now, to err on the side of caution, it is best to go for fresh milk or if not, local brands (i.e. not brands that have Sinhala names but which are made of locally obtained milk).     


sajic said...

Absolutely. The countries which export milk powder have been doing so for many years; their techniques and 'fine print' logic are sophisticated; and we have probably been taken-in. Unfortunately, if we want to compete we will have to do better about quality control-ask any consumer!