7 January 2014

Rwanda: Banned Milk Products Raise Concern Among Consumers

Reports and details of the three milk plants that were recently closed down for flouting safety standards and producing contaminated milk products not fit for human consumption have caused concern among consumers of milk products, mostly parents of children who have been consuming the products.

Though the move is a positive step towards ensuring proper safety standards, it has led to some consumers questioning the quality of consumables on supermarket shelves, with others expressing fear of the effect the products may have on their health.

Zechariah Mbanda, a father of two, considered taking his children out of class for a medical check-up as schools resumed.

"The closure of the plants was comforting but at the same time worrying. Though I have not seen any symptoms resulting from the milk intake, I am worried that it could have an effect later on," Mbanda said.

Mbanda was one of the many consumers and parents who expressed concerns due to the previous consumption of milk products from local sellers.

A spot check by The New Times around the city showed that most mini-markets and supermarkets did not have the 'black-listed' milk products on their shelves though the products were present at some smaller retail shops in several places around the city. The retailers in those shops were ignorant about the banning of the products.

However Philip Nzaire, the quality assurance director at Rwanda Bureau of Standards, assured consumers that the body was on the lookout for consumer goods to ensure that they are safe for human consumption.

"Our operations are routine and there are regular inspections carried out in the markets. It is usually an ongoing process, there is a department tasked to do that," Nzaire said.

Nzaire said not all the products produced by the plants had pathogenic bacteria, and urged previous consumers not to be alarmed.

"It was a specific batch of products that were faulty and unfit. Previously there had not been such fault in their products. The closure is, therefore, not permanent. It is temporary subject to improvement of hygiene and processing. Once they rectify that, they can get back to business," Nzaire said.

He also asked clients to be vigilant and make use of the information availed by the standards body and enquire in case of any doubts and suspicion of products' quality.

Nzaire urged consumers to ensure that the products they purchase have a quality mark by RBS.

"We may not have the capacity to monitor every product on the market, but we have preliminary programmes to improve quality like training, frequent and regular monitoring, and working with manufactures," he said.

On the potential harm to the consumers, Nzaire urged those who had consumed the products not to be alarmed, but warned that continued use could result into illness.

The standards agency also facilitates and encourages formation of consumer associations to advocate for consumer rights.

Emmanuel Bayingana, the acting director of the Competition and Consumer Protection Unit at the Ministry of Trade and Industry, said there were already laws to ensure consumers were protected against substandard goods.

"We have legal consequences for companies who default on the set standards. We begin by ensuring that the products are no longer available in the market before disseminating information to the public to stay away from the said products. We also require that firms take liability for the damage caused by their faulty products. Companies can also be sued in civil action for damages inflicted by their products," Bayingana said.

On who shoulders the cost of recalling products already in circulation, Bayingana said companies are responsible forpulling out their products from the market since they they are the ones in touch with their distribution and supply channels.

"If they cannot do that, we have regular inspections through retail outlets in the country and we work with local authorities. The law has a heavy penalty for firms found selling outlawed products. There is a maximum of 10 per cent of their annual turnover and a minimum of five per cent of the firm's annual turnover," Bayingana said.

Franc O'Brien, the Chief of Party with the Rwanda Dairy Competitiveness Programme, said some milk processing plants have sub-standard products because they keep their milk cold and fail to maintain proper hygiene.

"Consumers should mind about the hygiene of the premises selling milk and the kind of storage used," O'Brien said.

He said the symptoms that consumers of the said milk should look out for are similar to those of food poisoning and may differ from person to person.

The Director of clinical services at the Ministry of Health, Dr Theophille Dushime, lists vomiting and diarrhoea as some of the symptoms that could be attributed to the consumption of contaminated milk.

"There is, however, no specific symptom for milk products that one should look out for. However, there is no cause for alarm for those who consumed the products or urgent need to rush for medical checkups if one has not had any symptoms," Dushime said

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