DCD in Anchor: conspiracy or genuine error?August 10, 2013, 6:31 pm
By Maheen Senanayake
Fonterra which maintains a "Grass to Glass" vision of control from farm-gate to the supermarket has let its large consumer base down with a possible tainted product that can infect not just its consumers but its brand that boasts and equates its attention to the quality of its product to the trust of a mother.
According to media reports, on January 24, 2013, Theo Spierings, Chief Executive Officer, Fonterra Cooperative Group (FCG), the world’s largest dairy exporter, assured its biggest customers around the world that traces of an agricultural chemical found in some milk products posed no health risk. Reports further indicate that China and Taiwan are conducting tests after the Auckland, New Zealand-based company said on Jan. 24 that the fertilizer additive dicyandiamide, known as DCD, were present in some samples.
In Sri Lanka, The problem reached a crescendo when the Health Ministry, on the basis of tests initiated by the Ministry of Technology and Research and carried out by the Industrial Technology Institute (ITI) , the country’s premier scientific and industrial research organization, had held a meeting with the GMOA, Food and Drug Authority and the Food Advisory Committee on August 6 and agreed to have all the batches of the milk products which tested positive for DCD removed from the market as soon as possible.
The Island of August 7 in a front page report quoted a senior Health Ministry official stating "all tests on food items would be conducted by the ITI henceforth. The ITI investigations have established that the imported milk powder is tainted with DCD.’’
In this backdrop, the Fonterra Group in Sri Lanka held a press conference on August 8 in Colombo where its team lead by Leon Clement, MD, and Executive Director Alan Fitzsimo attempted to vindicate the company by challenging the accuracy of the ITI tests.
Leon maintained that it will respect the Ministry of Health order and that approximately 39 mt or approximately 100,000 400gm packs of the products from the two batches will be removed from retail shelves within 48 hours.
Dr. Sarath Mahavithanage, Associate Director Regulatory and Scientific Affairs lead the arguments on behalf of the company. He said he was willing to back his entire reputation on his argument that the tests conducted by the ITI were inadequate. He quoting Dr. Brynn Hibbert, Emeritus Professor of Analytical Chemistry at the University of New South Wales, Sydney who had said in his expert opinion "the preferred method involved for the detection of DCD is Tandem Mass Spectrometry and without this technique the presence of DCD cannot be determined and that the method used by the ITI was inappropriate to unequivocally show the presence of or determine the quantity of DCD."
The ITI’s Head of Chemical and Microbiological laboratory, J K A B Wijegunesekara, maintains that the ITI’s technique is well founded and adheres to clinical scientific procedure. "The test is conducted in two phases. First there is the preparatory phase which involves preparation of the sample for High Performance Liquid Chromatography. In our case the detection was though a UV detector. The other method is to use Mass Spectrometry. The difference here is that while UV detection can unequivocally determine the presence of a substance and in this case DCD, Spectrometry can be more accurate in the determination of the exact quantum", he said.
We drew the attention of the ITI to two points of concern that Dr. Hibbert had made including accreditation of the test procedure and the use of Certified Reference Material. Cawthrorn Laboratories are accredited to the international standard of ISO/IEC 17025 for the tandem mass spectrometry test according to their website. According to Dr. Sarath Mahavithange "the fact that Cawthron is certified automatically means that they are in possession of Certified Reference Material (a scientifically analysed sample of DCD in Milk Powder for the layman).
So was there DCD in the sample that ITI tested?
Whilst Fonterra’s expert the company has mobilized is busy undermining the ITI and discrediting its test methodology, the fact remains that the ITI has clinically detailed its methodology and procedure. It is also still in possession of the samples that they have tested. In the search for the truth, the tests let us say, if even minimally determines the presence of DCD, then is the same sample that needs to be subjected to further or alternate analysis.
The ITI did not seek samples from manufacturers to distributors but sought a general sample of several products not intentionally aimed at a single manufacturer’s products. The sampling being principally carried out at the retail points.
A copy of the batch that was identified is detailed below.
On the other hand the Cawthron laboratories were provided samples by the manufacturer. There is a question as to whether the samples came from the same batch. Dr. Mahavithanage maintains that "the samples provided to Cawthron for test analysis were of the same batch".
Science at a dilemma
The lack of a Certified Reference Material for this test may prove a great disadvantage for the ITI tests. On the other hand the ITI, as the premier research institute here, has been accredited by a host of institutions for a series of tests. Futhermore, the material discovered by the ITI if not DCD as Fonterra and Cawthron laboratories claim, also has to be subjected to additional testing at an independent laboratory. ITI neither aimed its tests towards Fonterra’s products nor do they gain monetarily from the results. "Our interests are primarily national and we follow directions from the Ministry of Science and Research", said Dr. Sirimal Premakumara, Director ITI.
Threshold toxic levels
Showing a pool in a Colombo five star hotel on a power point Dr. Mahavithanage said "This is the amount of milk that one has to consume in one day for the ITI-detected levels to have any effect". Later, Leon Clement noted that 500,000 lts. of milk would have to be consumed to establish the Tolerable Daily Intake. However, the point was personally corrected to the Sunday island that the 500,000 lts was actually the toxic level.
Media reports indicate that this was the third product contamination scare in five years for the company entrusted with so much sway over Sri Lanka’s consumers. The levels of DCD (the nitrate inhibitor dicyandiamide) found in New Zealand milk last January, though according to the company was harmless, suggested Fonterra had under-valued the importance of consumer perception.
According to media reports, the issue which dragged across 14 months where a potentially deadly bacteria in a "dirty pipe" at the Hautapu dairy factory near Cambridge contaminated 38 tonnes of whey protein concentrate, since used in thousands more tonnes of products including protein and sports drinks, infant formula, other nutritional products and calf feed and distributed around the world. About 20 tonnes of concentrate was soon sent to beverage manufacturers whose high-temperature treatment processes kill any spores. The remaining 18 tonnes sat in storage to be turned into infant formula and other nutritional products. It was not until March, 10 months after manufacture, that testing at the company’s Darnum Park milk powder plant near Melbourne detected traces of Clostridium, a large "family" of organisms which can produce hundreds of strains of bacteria, some linked to food poisoning. The report further quotes the company as having said that it did not immediately put the concentrate on hold because the samples were within acceptable limits and there was no suggestion of a botulin strain - but launched further testing to isolate the bacteria. It says identifying the potentially deadly Clostridium botulinum toxin took a further four months.
"We don’t really know what this is,’’ said Leon Clement at the press conference. When asked whether there is a conspiracy against his company he said, "Well it looks like it, we don’t really know what this is". But others in the field who requested anonymity did not entirely shoot the idea down.
"The milk powder market is huge and companies have been changing hands in Sri Lanka. The pricing being tightly controlled by the state, the fight for market share is very high. Whether the Fonterra product was contaminated or not, some of their competitors are likely to seize this opportunity for their own benefit. Then there are also the liquid milk producers in the country who have been lobbying for the reduction of milk powder imports for years. So a conspiracy cannot be entirely ruled out,", said the source that requested anonymity.
Where does Dicyandiamide (DCD) come from?
DCD is applied as a fine particle suspension spray to grazed pastures to control nitrogen losses from cow urine patches. Developed about 30 years ago, DCD is a compound which is widely used in a number of industries including electronics, pharmaceuticals, and in food packaging. It has been researched thoroughly and found to pose no food safety concerns. Since 2004, New Zealand farmers have used DCD to reduce their environmental footprint by slowing the rate at which soil bacteria convert ammonia into nitrate and nitrous oxide. Other countries also use DCD in cropping by applying it to nitrogen fertilizers. DCD is a nitrification inhibitor which the dairy industry uses to reduce nitrate leaching into waterways and greenhouse gas emissions. The NZ Ministry for Primary Industries recognizes DCD as an effective technology for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. It is also noted that DCD is completely biodegradable in soil and leaves no residues. It is not applied in the NZ summer months, but just before times of high drainage in autumn, winter and spring. DCD is also a mitigation technology that has been incorporated into New Zealand’s annual greenhouse gas inventory submitted annually to the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change.
The Sunday Island despite several attempts was not able to contact minister of Technology and Research with respect to his comments on the Fonterra group releasing to the media in particular and the public space in general a confidential report issued by the ITI to the ministry.
Milk safety in China became a major issue in 2008, when locally made melamine-contaminated milk powder may have killed at least six infants, causing the collapse of Fonterra’s Chinese partner, the Sanlu Group.
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