Dhaka, Bangladesh – The discovery of hazardous antibiotics in some of the most popular packaged milk brands in Bangladesh has raised serious health concerns and triggered controversy.
A research team in Dhaka University, led by Professor ABM Faroque, conducted two separate tests within a month and found antibiotics present in at least five major milk brands.
“The only difference is that we found three types of antibiotics in the first study, the second time we found four,” said Faroque, who is a former head of the Biomedical Research Centre (BRC) at Dhaka University, one of the country’s premier educational institutions.
“For the sake of public health, I wanted to test popular pasteurised milk products to check whether those contain any harmful antibiotics,” Faroque told Al Jazeera.
“Since most commercial dairy firms feed excessive antibiotics to their cows to keep them free of diseases, I wanted to check the condition of their milk.”
On June 25, Faroque called a press conference to reveal that three antibiotics, including levofloxacin, ciprofloxacin and azithromycin, were found in seven pasteurised milk products of the popular Pran, Milk Vita, Igloo, Aarong, and Farm Fresh brands.
On Saturday, as Faroque announced the findings of a second test, he added oxytetracycline to that list of antibiotics, which are used mainly to treat bacterial infections.
Experts warn that sustained intake of antibiotics builds resistance against them inside a human body, thereby blocking a person’s ability to recover during an illness.
However, authorities at Dhaka University as well as in the government rejected the findings, with a senior government official even threatening legal action against the academic.
Three days after the June 25 press conference, Dhaka University’s Pharmacy Department, where Faroque works, issued a statement claiming his research was “personal” and therefore could not be officially endorsed.
Sitesh Chandra Bachar, chairperson of the department, said Faroque’s report was “conducted by unskilled students” and yet to be reviewed by a reputed journal in their discipline.
“I think there might be other intentions behind the revealing of the research findings on such a sensitive topic through a press conference,” he said.
Last week, Wasi Uddin, additional secretary in the Department of Livestock Services reportedly threatened to take legal action against Faroque.
“Bring the publication to the ministry within a week if you have published the findings in a peer-reviewed journal. Otherwise, legal actions will be taken against you,” he is reported to have said during a meeting on the matter.
Wasi Uddin also questioned the objective of the study, claiming “many local and foreign forces were conspiring to destroy Bangladesh’s booming dairy industry”.
However, Firoz Ahmed, professor of pharmaceutical chemistry and Faroque’s co-researcher, told Al Jazeera that they had taken the approval of the Bangladesh Bureau of Educational Information and Statistics (BANBEIS), which falls under the Ministry of Education, for the study.
“So it is basically a government-approved project under the supervision of Professor Faroque, who has vast experience in conducting such studies,” he said.
Faroque said he felt a “sense of urgency” to let the people know about the harmful effects of antibiotics in milk.
“That’s why I revealed the findings in a press conference,” he said. “I didn’t know I would be sort of embarrassed for my deeds.”
Meanwhile, the Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution (BSTI), the country’s lone quality control body, appeared to be in a dilemma over whether to act on Faroque’s findings.
In February, the National Food Safety Laboratory (NFSL) of Bangladesh found high levels of microbial contaminants in dairy products in a survey conducted with the support of the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).
The survey prompted the High Court to ask the BSTI to test dairy products in the market and bring the results before the court.
But the test results submitted by BSTI in court on June 25 did not find any harmful elements in the samples of 14 brands of packaged milk, including the five brands studied by Faroque’s team.
However, media reports said BSTI did not have the mechanisms to detect harmful agents such as antibiotics or pesticides in food items.
BSTI director Nurul Islam told Al Jazeera that their laboratories were not equipped to identify antibiotics in milk products. “We still use age-old technology to detect the quality of milk. We need to update that,” he said.
The National Dairy Development Forum (NDDF), which represents industrial dairy firms of Bangladesh, also dismissed Faroque’s report.
“I would say our processed milk is safe for human consumption,” said NDDF general secretary Mohammad Anisur Rahman, who is also the dairy and food director of Brac Social Enterprise that produces the Aarong brand of milk.
When Al Jazeera told Milk Vita spokesperson Mozahedul Islam Mehdi that BSTI was not capable of checking antibiotics in milk, he told Al Jazeera: “But that is the only standardisation body in the country.”
Meanwhile, with milk being a basic component of food in households, it is the consumers who remain potentially vulnerable.
Marketing research executive Nadia Tabassum Khan, who is also a mother of a girl, told Al Jazeera that resistance to antibiotics was already a worrying matter in Bangladesh. “Now it is being found in milk. What will I feed my child?” she asked.
Rakib Mostafa, a bank employee, said “honest researchers like Faroque” revealed the truth to the nation and now “vested interests are trying to undermine” his work.
“We stand united with him. We want more research like this for the greater good of the public,” he said.
Additional reporting by Rifat Islam from Dhaka