Rashomon at The Breakfast Table! Milking the Tainted Milk Affair

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Since my wife is crazy for sustainable, economically viable green jeitinhos, we insulated our nutty house, originally built by arte povera fanatics, with a product engineered by a local academic lab, using recycled UHT milk packaging collected by local carroceiros and sewn to spec by local seamstresses. It works really well. Some kind of “fabric architecture” treatment comes next, to hide the funky-lookingness of the insulating layer. Surrealistic levitating chair by Geraldo “Geraldão” Paranhos.

Ministério da Agricultura proíbe comercialização de leite de 4 empresas: In its “press round-up,” Último Segundo (Brazil) reports that the Folha de S. Paulo reports that the ministry of agriculture has prohibited four companies from selling UHT milk.”

What seems to be actually be the case is that the four companies have been told not to send milk to market from specific facilitiesuntil the product has been tested and certified.

i cribs the Folha headline verbatim. At the bottom of the report, however, we read this headline, under “see also”:

The Folha report in question cites as its source the exact same report by the Agência Brasil on which that “see also” story is based.

Which presents with a situation which comparative readers of the Brazilian press will find all too familar: contradictory headlines based on the same set of facts.

The ombudsman of the Folha, the hard-working Mr. Magalhães, has coined a nice phrase for such moments, when headlines and ledes apparently contradict the body of the report: Folha v. Folha. I think he might find that this is another such case.

Now that my copy of E.D. Hirsch’s Conflicts of Interpretation has arrived here in Brazil, this might make an interesting case study to read through that lens.

As I reacquaint myself with the tools required to sort signal from noise when news reporting treats real-life contempoary events as though they were the proper object of scriptural hermeneutics.

I have been curious to see how the Brazilian press would handle the story of a (limited) recall of milk shipments after a facility in Minas Gerais was found to be using prohibited additives in its production facility.

The discovery prompted a round of intensified inspections to verify that other producers were not engaged in similar practices.

Food and drug contamination is always a highly sensitive topic — remember “poisoned Tylenol”? — and is a common theme in mass hysteria outbreaks, according to some of the medical and public health literature I have looked up (at the Brooklyn Public Library, not Google, mind you) on the subject.

BRASÍLIA E RIO – De acordo com reportagem do jornal “Folha de São Paulo” [sic], o Ministério da Agricultura proibiu quatro empresas de comercializarem leite longa vida (UHT). Ficou constatado que os produtos tinham alto teor de acidez e de alcalinidade.

According to the Folha, the Ministry of Agriculture has prohibited four companies from selling UHT milk. It has been shown that the products have a high degree of acidity and alkalinity.

(Why, if the Folha report is based exclusively on press releases, does US need to “round it up”?)

High acidity and high alkalinity, at the same time? I am flashing back to high school chemistry right now. Mrs. Burton would threaten to rap me on the knuckles for making such a statement on the midterm exam.

I believe I read that the prohibited additives were some sort of common, ordinary alkaline and acidic (baking soda and I do not know what all) compounds, possibly being used as a short-cut to meeting pH standards while cutting corners and costs.

So perhaps what they mean is that the milk in question contained levels of alkaline and acid substances beyond what is permitted.

I have yet to read a single line about the actual health risks posed by ingesting these additives in the quantities in question (which are what, by the way?)

As empresas podem até produzir o leite, mas não podem vendê-lo. A proibição atingiu as unidades da Parmalat em Carazinho (RS), da Casmil (Cooperativa Agropecuária do Sudoeste Mineiro), em Passos (MG), da Copervale (Cooperativa dos Produtores de Leite do Vale do Rio Grande), em Uberaba (MG), e da Avipal, em Itumbiara (GO).

The companies can produce milk, but cannot sell it. The prohibition affects the Parmalat unit in Carazinho (RS), the CASMIL plant in Passos (G), the Copervale facility in Uberaba (MG) and the Avipal facility in Itumbiara (GO).

In gisting the Folha story, Último Segundo fails to note the following paragraph in the original:

Em nota enviada hoje, a empresa Avipal Nordeste informa que o estoque de leite longa vida de sua fábrica em Itumbiara (GO) foi produzido pela CCL (Cooperativa Central de Laticínios do Estado de São Paulo), e não por ela.

In a press release issued today, Avipal informs that the stock of UHT milk at its Itumbiara facility was not produced by it, but by CCL in São Paulo.

A decisão, tomada pelo governo no último dia 26, foi divulgada apenas na última sexta-feira. Em nota, a Parmalat disse que a unidade de Santa Helena foi liberada no mesmo dia pela avaliação dos laboratórios, feita pelo Ministério da Agricultura.

If I were on Parmalat’s crisis PR team, or working for one of those other dairy farming concerns, I would be going bonkers.

In the background of the issue, aside from the public health angle, is the current trade dispute with the European Union over the adequacy of Brazilian food safety regulation and oversight.

On which topic quite a bit of published nonsense has been observed recently as well. See, for example,

The Agência Brasil reported yesterday, citing a MiniAgricu (MAPA) press release to the effect

O Ministério da Agricultura informou hoje (2) que nenhum fabricante de leite está interditado, ao contrário do que divulgaram alguns veículos de imprensa. Segundo a assessoria de imprensa do ministério, o leite longa vida de quatro empresas está na verdade suspenso apenas para análise, cujo resultado não será divulgado porque faz parte de investigação da Polícia Federal. A comercialização do produto pasteurizado, que precisa ser resfriado e fervido para consumo, não foi suspensa.

… that no milk manufacturer had been interdicted, contrary to reports by certain news publications. According to the ministry press office, the sale of UHT milk, designed for extended shelf life, from four companies is merely [temporarily] suspended for analysis, whose results will not be published because they are part of a federal police investigation. The sale of pasteurized milk, which must be chilled and boiled before consumption, was not suspended.

The Agência Brasil quacks on this technical point.

The process of pasteurization involves heating the milk to kill bacteria.

After pasteurization, the product must be refrigerated constantly to retard new bacterial growth.

The more-expensive and labor-intensive UHT (ultra-high temperature) process uses higher temperatures, followed by special packaging, all carried out in a sterile environment.

This means the product can be stored without refrigeration, for longer periods of time, until it is used. At which point the consumer has to refrigerate it, after breaking the sterile seal.

The Estado, meanwhile, reported as follows yesterday:

Autoridades sanitárias não confirmaram hoje o fechamento de uma das unidades da Parmalat, em Goiás. Porém, e segundo informações extra-oficiais, o Ministério da Agricultura (MAPA) teria interditado um lote de leite longa vida (UHT) da Parmalat, que é produzido em Santa Helena (GO), a 205 quilômetros a sudoeste de Goiânia. “As informações que temos, no momento, versam sobre a interdição de um lote e não da unidade de Santa Helena”, afirmou Alfredo Luiz Corrêa, gerente-executivo do Sindileite. Procurados, tanto o MAPA quanto a Secretaria de Vigilância Sanitária de Goiás nada revelaram sobre a interdição.

Health authorities did not confirm today the closure of a Parmalat unit in Goiás, but according to unofficial sources, MAPA did interdict a production run [“lot”] of Parmalat UHT milk produced in Santa Helena. “The information we have at the moment, indicated the interdiction of a production run and not of the Santa Helena production unit,” said the head of the local milk producer’s syndicate.

The putatively new element — the value-added — in the Folha‘s reporting today, meanwhile — is buried well below the lede:

Contrariamente ao determinado pelo Ministério da Agricultura, a empresa informou que não houve interrupção na produção ou comercialização dos seus produtos no varejo durante a inspeção de rotina.

Contrary to what the Ministry of Agriculture determined, the company reported that there was no interruption in the production or retail sales of its products during the routine inspection.

The headline of the story is that Ministry of Agriculture did interrupt the sale of milk products.

The body of the story claims that Parmalat says that is not true.

Parmalat itself, in yesterday’s AB story, is quoted as saying that some lots still have to be checked, while products from other facilities have already been cleared for supermarket shelves.

A Parmalat enviou uma cópia de um documento interno do Ministério da Agricultura assinado pelo fiscal agropecuário Marcius Ribeiro de Freitas. Em sua assinatura, consta que ele é coordenador-geral da inspeção do Departamento de Inspeção de Produtos de Origem Animal.

Parmalat sent a copy of an internal MiniAg document signed by agricultural inspector Ribeiro de Freitas. With his signature, he identifies himself as the general coordinator of inspection in the Animal Products Inspection Department.

O documento informa que a comercialização do leite UHT da Parmalat em Santa Helena de Goiás está liberada, assim como os lotes retidos para verificação da conformidade do produto.

The document states that the sale of Parmalat UHT produced in Santa Helena, in Goiás, is permitted to proceed, as well the lots held back for verification of their compliance with regulations.

O Ministério da Agricultura não foi localizado para confirmar a veracidade do documento.

The MiniAg was not located to confirm the authenticity of the document.

The Folha de São Paulo does not know how to locate the Ministry of Agriculture?

But where is the supposed contradiction here? The document purports to show that a MAPA inspector certified that he had tested the stuff, at a particular facility, before clearing it for sale.

The MiniAg had said shipment to retail sales outlets would be temporarily suspended until a sample was inspected for compliance, then could resume once compliance was certified.

Maybe the inspection got done fast enough that the shipment did not have to be delayed. Which would be nice for the producer.

In any event, if the MiniAg reported yestereday those steps would be taken, and today Parmalat has a document saying the products were “cleared for sale,” you would think that the date on the document in question would be significant.

Who, what, WHEN …

It is possible, of course, that the MiniAg itself has contributed to the confusion here.

It may have not been aware that some of the work had already been done when it announced the steps being taken.

And it created — according to the Agência Brasil now — some confusion last week by not specifying that its order to hold for inspection applied specifically to UHT products, not pasteurized one.

The order to test, then release, product, was issued on November 1. The announcement of the measure was yesterday. The news that some of the milk has now been released comes today.

So what was the date of the document releasing the lots in question, from the Goiás facility?

The more I read, the more confused I get.

But again, what the Folha is reporting does not really appear to contradict what the Agência Brasil reported that MAPA, or what Parmalat PR wishes to emphasize: that some of its UHT production facilities have been already been checked and cleared.

This is important, from its point of view.

Because in that case, it is not true that all UHT milk has been suspended.

Therefore, if you see Parmalat UHT milk on the shelves, your supermarket is not necessarily trying to poison you.

It could be UHT milk from a lot that has already been checked and cleared for sale.

Leaving open the inference that UHT milk in general has been suspended is a sales manager’s public relations nightmare.

But that is precisely the impression given by the headline and lead of the Folha story. Which the Folha has thoroughly garbled in my view.

We would have prbably all been better off just reading the MiniAg press release along with the Parmalat press release.

I am just starting to look into the coverage of the story across various media outlets, but a random preliminary sample indicates two agents of contamination: (1) gabbling (imprecise explanations of technical processes), and (2) spin.

spin a distinctive interpretation (especially as used by politicians to sway public opinion. “The campaign put a favorable spin on the story” (Princeton WordNet)

The chain of transmission, meanwhile — from the Ministry of Agriculture to Agência Brasil to the Folha to Último Segundo’s “press roundup” — may serve as a good illustration of the Chinese Whispers effect.

Chinese whispers or Telephone is a game in which each successive participant secretly whispers to the next a phrase or sentence whispered to them by the preceding participant. Cumulative errors from mishearing often result in the sentence heard by the last player differing greatly and amusingly from the one uttered by the first. It is most often played by children as a party game or in the playground. It is often invoked as a metaphor for cumulative error, especially the inaccuracies of rumours.

Adding insult to injury is when Último Segundo, after running a gisting of incoherent reporting that thoroughly mystifies the issue — possibly because the Folha is pissed that the MiniAg accused it of errors in reporting, and wants to pass the buck back to the federal bureaucracy — uses glittering generalities to “demystify” the issue for the consumer.

It is classic David “Fear and Misinformation Abound” Sasaki-style FUD. It is makes astonishingly irresponsible claims without any backing whatsoever.

Para o consumidor

For the consumer

Muitas dúvidas ainda rondam a cabeça dos apaixonados por leite. Muitos acreditam que com a fervura, o leite estará livre da contaminação.

Many doubts are still whirling around in the heads of milk lovers. Many believe that once it is boiled, the milk will be free of contamination.

How does US know that people believe this?

What market researcher firm did it hire to determine this putative fact?

Os que pensam assim estão errados, pois o processo não neutraliza as substâncias proibidas.

But they think wrong. The [pasteurization] process does not neutralize the prohibited substances.

What are the prohibited substances, and how much of a health risk do they actually pose?

É preciso ficar atento também com os produtos derivados, pois eles não estão livres da contaminação.

It is necessary to stay alert with derivative products as well, because they are not free of contamination.

What!?

Who says they are not?

What derivative product manufacturers might be using affected UHT products, and what steps have been taken or are being taken to check those products, and prevent them from hitting the shelves?

Quem constatar um aspecto estranho, deve comunicar a Agência Nacional de Vigilância Sanitária (Anvisa).

Anyone noticing anything strange should enter into contact with ANVISA.

Anything strange such as what?

Our manager at the minisupermarket up the hill — América — actually explained all of this to us fairly clearly, based on what he heard direct from his supplier.

“We are not putting anything on the shelf that has not been cleared. It is just a few production centers, not the whole industry. But if you are really worried about it, buy fresh pasteurized until all this gets straightened out.”

“No skin off our nose: The UHT stuff keeps, so we can hang onto for a while, until this mess is straightened out, without having to eat the costs”

I believe that guy.

We are eating queijo mineira (with figada) and sucking down café com leite with relative peace of mind at the moment.

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