The court’s appellate division first upheld an appeal filed by Milk Vita, Bangladesh’s biggest dairy cooperative, to allow production to continue. The High Court had earlier asked all pasteurized milk producers to shut up shop for five weeks after dangerous levels of antibiotics and/or heavy metals were discovered in their products.
The decision has now been put on ice for eight weeks for Milk Vita. Soon afterwards, the Supreme Court also cleared the way for Farm Fresh and Pran Milk brands to resume distribution of their pasteurized milk for five weeks.
Milk Vita, which holds a roughly 70% share of the liquid milk market, was temporarily let off the hook after its lawyer argued that its tens of thousands of members might face ruin. Farm Fresh and Pran successfully argued that their pasteurized milk did not exceed the danger level of antibiotics and metals.
The other companies affected by the halt are Aarong Dairy, Arwa, Ay-Ran, Dairy Fresh, Igloo, Milk Fresh, Milk One, PURA, SAFE and Ultra Aftab. These are were not subject to the later rulings.
Following the Supreme Court’s order, there is now no restriction on producing and selling of milk by Milk Vita, known formally as the Bangladesh Milk Producers’ Cooperative Union, in the local market, according to the country’s attorney general. The same applies for the other two brands.
At the center of the case lie recent tests that showed leading brands of milk to contain antibiotics and other adulterants, including detergent, bacteria and heavy metals.
Researchers at Dhaka University made the discovery in early July, initially through samples of 10 brands, prompting a full investigation by food safety authorities. They discovered four types of antibiotics—azithromycin, ciprofloxacin, evofloxacin and oxytetracycline—in the well-known pasteurized, packaged brands.
On July 14, the High Court sought reports from the four laboratories that were testing samples of major pasteurized milk brands, the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh, the Bangladesh Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, the Institute of Public Health and the Bangladesh Livestock Research Institute’s Food Safety Laboratory.
Having assessed the reports, the court ordered issued its order to 14 companies, which are registered with the Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution.
The antibiotics are used to treat infections that are endemic in the country including typhoid, pneumonia and gastroenteritis.
News of the findings have caused consumer confidence in Bangladeshi milk to plummet. According to the National Dairy Development Forum, which represents the local milk industry, sales have dropped by almost a half in the four weeks since the first study was published. Meanwhile, the High Court ban has started to become politically charged.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina waded into the crisis this week, expressing her concern over the High Court’s directive to stop production by the 14 companies, suggesting it was a ploy by milk importers to increase their market.
Demand for dairy products in Bangladesh is growing. The country produced 9.4m tonnes of milk last year, according to the Department of Livestock Services. As local production only accommodates about two-thirds of domestic demand, a large share of the market is given over to imports.
“After a [single] test, an examiner suddenly announced that the milk was not drinkable. A writ was also filed with the court and the court banned the milk for five weeks,” she said.
“I don’t know why a professor should spread misinformation through his study,” she continued, referring to ABM Faroque of the university’s Biomedical Research Centre, who led the research.
“Did the professor conduct any tests on imported milk? I presume he never did. I am requesting him to conduct a test on imported milk," the PM said, adding: “We don’t want to become import-dependent country. We want to be a self-dependent country. We want to meet local demand [for milk] with domestic production.”
The prime minister also warned that legal action would be taken if Bangladeshi exports were hampered due to the spread of rumors by the public and corporations about the antibiotic traces found in the tested milk.
In response, the High Court observed that the public has a constitutionally protected right to have pure, safe, and hygienic milk that maintains international standards.
It also pointedly warned all domestic dairy companies to be wary of foreign milk powder imports so do not swamp the market.
Meanwhile, an umbrella organization consisting of environmental bodies and civil society groups is demanding that the government takes the samples from the 14 companies for comprehensive independent testing overseas. They also urged the government to test for levels of antibiotics in other popular foods sold domestically.
"I would suggest that they be sent for testing in a WHO standardized facility. You have to understand that we are talking about milk here, it's a very basic nutritious food. Our children need it," Mohammad Abu Sayeed, president of Doctors for Health and Environment, an independent environmental and social organization, told the Telegraph.
Antibiotic-resistant superbugs have become a burning issue in South Asian countries like Bangladesh, where they are largely unregulated and uncontrolled.
Doctors believe that the consumption of antibiotics in milk fuels the spread of superbugs, while the heavy metals identified in the milk testing can cause serious health problems including kidney and lung disease.