How did the Kosovo authorities discover this dangerous substance known as “aflatoxin” in milk produced in Albania, and which were the real reasons to reveal this shocking truth; Which is the damage caused to the milk processing businesses, and which are their doubts in this story.
By: Endrit Habilaj
Milk containing the dangerous carcinogenic substance, known as aflatoxin, was one of the most euphoric news in all the Albanian media for over a month. The alarm was given and the public concern was huge at the time. However, as in other cases, everything ended without a concrete solution, and even without any negative result. The question is how was this contaminated milk, with a two to three time higher level of aflatoxin than the normal level allowed in the European Union, discovered? Was it the Kosovo Food and Veterinary Agency (KVFA ) the one to give the alarm that there were some brands of milk with a high level of aflatoxin, that they were produced and sold in the Albanian market, and that this level was considerably higher than the one allowed in the European Union market?
However, in investigating the above-mentioned agency, it was found out that it did not test any of the local dairy products, only those imported
Facsimile of the email the journalist sent to the Kosovo food safety authorities
from Albania and some other countries of the region. We have tried to contact the agency even through the email or phone, but received no response from the Kosovo Food and Veterinary Agency. Many people have questioned whether the Kosovo authorities have the proper technical capacities to test the presence of this hazardous substance in milk; or did it all happen just for a matter of business competition? The official spokesperson of KVFA, Lamir Thaçi, has published a list of milk products currently blocked and not allowed to be sold in the market, and one can easily see that there isn’t any Kosovo milk processing factory included in that list. According to him, the brands of dairy products containing aflatoxin are, “Meggle” produced in Bosnia-Herzegovina, “Fast Milk” produced in Albania, “Primalat” produced in Albania, “Zott” produced in Bosnia, and “Dukat” produced in Croatia.
None of these milk factories does not appear to be located in Kosovo, thus creating strong suspicions about a corruption scandal involving Kosovo government persons, who seem to have been successful in their attempts to damage the imported products, giving thus the priority to the local ones.
Later, on February 22, we were informed from Kosovo that a certain quantity of the Albanian milk-processing brands resulted to have a much higher level of aflatoxin than the one allowed by the European Union. The media immediately published the news, and meanwhile, the National Food Safety Authority was informed, in order to block this quantity of milk coming from Kosovo.
Immediately after that, the Ministry of Agriculture reacted through a press release, stating that the quantity of milk being blocked by the KVFA in Kosovo is still undergoing a testing process. Three days later, the Ministry of Agriculture and KFVA collected milk samples, to be analyzed by the Institute of Food Safety and Veterinary in Tirana, in order to verify the Kosovo results, even though there were doubts the lab in question did not have reagents to do such testing.
A day later, on February 26, the KFVA’s director gives a press conference, where he stated that after the testing at the Institute of Food Safety and Veterinary in Tirana, the quantity of aflatoxin in milk resulted to be the same as in the Kosovo testing, i.e., higher than the normal level allowed in the EU. However, in any of these cases it was not published the found level of aflatoxin in milk, as well as the level which would pose a threat to the consumers’ life. Moreover, only the suspected Albanian brands of milk were the ones that underwent testing, not all the brands of milk in the market, and not the milk by-products, produced in Kosovo. Samples of these brands of milk were taken for further testing in an accredited laboratory in Brescia, Italy.
These factories were asked (in a suspicious manner) to voluntarily withdraw from the market the suspected products, and later the Ministry of Health through an immediate order forbade the consumption of milk in nurseries and kindergartens. These alarms made the consumers abandon the use of these brands of milk, and the consequences of this affected not only the milk processing factories, but also the livestock farms, which could not sell their milk anywhere.
Further, with the results of the tests, it came out that it was a false alarm, because the level of aflatoxin in milk was in the norm allowed by the European Union. However, despite this important finding, businesses were already damaged by this situation, even though a false one, and their damage is calculated to have reached billions of lek.
Which is the origin of this story about milk having high levels of aflatoxin? At the end, was it damage to the individual or maybe a slap in the face for the business owners? Which was the result of all this mess? Which are the real threats behind aflatoxin in milk and is there any panic now among Albanian citizens when it comes to buying packaged milk?
In order to be more concrete in telling this story, it must be said that the Kosovo Food and Veterinary Agency accuses two specific Albanian milk-processing companies, which are powerful in the market. The public is already aware of these companies, namely “Fastmilk” and “Primalat”. If you go to visit their premises, you will see that they are huge investments. However, it seems this was not enough to avoid giving the alarm. The Albanian factory “Primalat”, which was established a year and a half ago, owns already 40 percent of the market share in Albania and 35 percent in Kosovo.
“We have a milk processing factory that has cost us seven million euro, a colossal investment which we made bearing in mind also the interests of Albanians. The premises of “Primalat” factory are vey hygienic and sterile, and it has been already certified by the European Union. I have used in it my 20-year experience in France, so that the product would have the best possible quality. We have employed in our factory the best Albanian experts in the field of veterinary, who continuously advise farmers about the hygiene conditions and monitor the process, from the moment of milk collection to the moment it reaches to the consumers. We work in compliance with the highest requirements, so that we meet the highest standards. In the first stage of the process, which is milk collection from local farmers, we use vehicles with a funnel-shaped container, which can securely store milk at 4 degrees C. After that, the milk reaches our factory in Sukth and is put back in the freezer. Later, it is processed, sterilized, air is automatically removed from its packaging and every step of the process is indeed very hygienic. At the end of the process, we distribute it in the market for sale”, – said one of the “Primalat” factory’s administrators, Vigan Dervishi.
This success boomeranged negatively this time though. According to its leaders, the factory was deliberately involved in the aflatoxin scandal. The damage was huge. Nearly 2500 farmers were left with no income and 1.5 million euro was the loss incurred by the modern factory “Primalat” in Sukth, which was said to be a state-of-the-art factory.
“We were affected very negatively by the scandal, even more than the other countries in the region. The damage is incalculable. It is the fault of the Kosovo authorities alone, which were reluctant in giving the correct results, and as we all know, at the end the milk sample testing in Italy showed that the two dairy companies in question, “Primalat” and “Fast Milk” did not exceed the normal level of aflatoxin present in the milk by them produced. However, the damage was done. It was all caused by some other dairy factories in Kosovo that were bribing several authorities to give this false alarm and cause panic. I say this because we used to export to Kosovo nearly three large containers of milk per week. Only the milk produced by the two companies, “Primalat” and “Fastmilk” can be consumed up to six months after the date of production, because our modern factories enable its vacuum packaging, thus making it resist more and possible to be exported abroad. They thought that only by damaging us, they could give priority to Kosovo milk. But this is the wrong way of doing things”, Vigan Dervishi, a specialist of the field added.
According to him, our institutions did not properly manage the situation, because they failed to protect the domestic business, and preferred
instead to spread panic. He also stressed the fact that the Food Safety Authority lacks the capacity to assess the risk, and it has never shown a sign of transparency by not publicly declaring the found level of aflatoxin in the dairy products sold in Albania and those intended for export.
“The Food Control Authority in Albania was hasty in accusing our dairy company, without any evidence or fact. They were initially based on the data served by the KFVA, since they do not have capacities to carry out such testing. Their mistake was to go publicly without asking first, because, as it resulted later from the testing in Italy, our milk did not exceed the allowed level of aflatoxin. However, it was no longer necessary, since the damage was done. Every month we have invited specialists from the Food Safety Authority (FSA) to visit our factory and monitor the entire process of milk processing. I am sure that the FSA officials wouldn’t tell a thing if they had been properly paid to remain silent. Unfortunately for them I do not have this kind of culture, because I come from a country that is considered the cradle of democracy and free trade. I am not used to this kind of trade, but I can guarantee that if something needs to be investigated, it is not our milk factory, but dozens of foods that contain very dangerous chemical substances for the human body”, – Dervishi added.
Going back to the damage incurred to the Albanian businesses, the “Albanian Agribusiness Council” (AAC) has condemned such a premature alarm given by the authorities both in Albania and Kosovo regarding the exceeded level of aflatoxin in some brands of milk processed in the country. The chair of the Albanian Agribusiness Council, Enver Ferizaj, stated that by giving such alarm, an unrecoverable damage incurred to the Albanian businesses.
“A premature alarm was given, which has and is still damaging considerably the factories of milk processing. Various businesses have corruptive attitudes to protect their own interests, intending to damage the market competition in Albania. I urge the responsible institutions not to act through statements in the media that serve to nothing but damage these factories”, Enver Ferizaj, the AAC’s chair stated.
However, despite the panic, people today are still not clear about the real damages of aflatoxin in milk, because the media has considered it as the top killer of health. In fact, aflatoxin is not produced in factories. It is already present in the milk that comes from the farms, as its only source in the country. The M1 type of aflatoxin that is naturally produced in milk is not as dangerous as the B1 type, which is found in flour and has fatal consequences for the consumers. But its presence in the bread that Albanians consume daily is not considered as a problem and is not investigated, because no one benefits if such alarm is given. Whereas, with the milk case, there were some people who unjustly benefited through an unfair and rather primitive competition, people who owned milk processing factories in Kosovo.
Lindita Molla, Specialist at the Public Health Institute
The Public Health Institute’s specialist, Lindita Molla, said that the M1 type aflatoxin found in milk (that is how it takes its name, Milk 1-M1) is harmless compared to the other types of aflatoxin. “The four most dangerous types of aflatoxin are B1, B2, G1 and G2. These types are given special attention, due to their strong carcinogenic effect in humans. The Aspergillus mold can be formed in food products, such as cereals (maize, millet, rice, wheat), in spices (peanut, soya, sunflower, cotton), spices (chili pepper, black pepper, coriander, saffron, ginger) and various nuts (almonds, nuts, coconuts, Brazil nuts). The B1 type of aflatoxin is the most powerful mycotoxin in cattle. The B1 type increases the demand for protein in cattle and is a potent carcinogen. When animals are fed, they consume a large amount of B1 aflatoxin, whereas in milk its metabolite – M1, will appear. Studies have shown that the M1 aflatoxin is not that carcinogenic or mutagenic as the B1”, – explained Prof. As. Lindita Molla, specialist in the public health sector.
Asked about the existence of methods to eliminate the quantity of aflatoxin in milk, but also in other products, such as, bread, spices, etc, which poses a higher threat, the specialist answered, as follows:
“Removal of aflatoxin from food can be done through the process of heating, adsorption or radiation. Aflatoxins are relatively resistant to heat and are destroyed only at 250 degrees C. For this reason, through a specific process the aflatoxins can be destroyed, but only if the above-mentioned temperature is reached. In the thermal processes, the destruction of aflatoxins depends on the temperature and time of exposure. For example, coffee roasting at 200 degrees C for about 12 minutes causes the reduction of aflatoxin contained in coffee by 79%, whereas, after 15 minutes nearly 94% of this toxin disappears. This is a very effective method used for the milk, and nearly 85-90% of aflatoxins disappear while processed in factory”, – Prof. As. Lindita Molla added.
While it has been few weeks since the situation of panic about aflatoxin, citizens and consumers are still skeptical about consumption of milk
Monthly testing of milk
produced by the three companies that were unjustly accused. “I will absolutely stop drinking this milk; it contains carcinogenic substances. We have totally lost faith in these companies”, a customer said. “These phenomena happen only in Albania; one can drink poisoned milk and does not even know it. Not only have I stopped buying milk from these companies, but I don’t drink milk at all now”, another consumer said. “I think that there is nothing wrong with consuming milk from these three companies. I think it was just another useless concern, which besides the three companies in question, did not harm anyone else”, another one said. Furthermore, many consumers are buying now foreign dairy products, mainly Italian, since it is a member of the European Union.
It was the milk processing businesses’ turn to be hit hard by the corruption policies of the state and by the lack of ethics of some visual and print media that did not hesitate to immediately publish the names of these companies, therefore misinforming the public. The scandal and the incalculable damages can serve as a useful lesson to all the Albanian entrepreneurs that have the wish to reach the highest standards with their products and feel proud with their “Made in Albania”, but who sometimes fall very soon prey of our government’s ceding policies, which produce in turn lack of ethics and a not-that-fair completion…
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