Milking and Bilking in Old Brazil: A Quick Note on Fear, Uncertainty and FAQs

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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.

The cow is of the bovine ilk
One end is moo, the other, milk
–Ogden Nash

A good horse runs even at the shadow of the whip. — Zen koan.

mass hysteria and stupidity can make a real difference to a business’ bottom line. … –Rhymer Rigby. “Craze Management.” Management Today. London: Jun 1998. p. 58

Brazil’s Ministério da Agricultura, Pecuária e Abastecimento publishes a FAQ on a recent product recall of UHT milk, after a producer was suspected of cutting corners by using impermissible additives.

See also

And some follow-up :

Coverage of the affair is starting to develop a lot of the same characteristics as coverage of the TAM air disaster earlier this year: massive volumes of hysterical dis- and misinformation, anonymous punditry, treatment of technical issues that presuppose creative alternative interpretations of the laws of thermodynamics.

A generalized journalistic samba da Globo doida, with hints of that most athletic of carnivalesque dance forms, next to the capoeira-based frevo: the maracutaia. Example:

It is a lot of work to try to clip and study such stories systematically, but I will try to collect a decent random sample, time permitting.

We did see a pretty good TV news segment on the whole affair yesterday, I should say. I should try to credit the source of that.

It showed the whole production cycle, and commented on the sanitary risks at each “process handoff” and how they were supposed to be handled. It talked to milk producers and government people and store managers and consumers.

It tended to reinforce the impression I got from talking to our store manager: Store managers seem to be getting pretty good, clear, simple information on what to do, and what to tell customers. Eavesdropping on consumer conversations in the milk aisle, we, at least, did not hear much panic and alarm. Some cases of “I think I will buy pasteurized milk until I can figure this out.”

We saw another TV news segment, however — I need to track down which channel that was; I did not have my viewing notebook handy last evening (and had downloaded a modest but effective amount of the agua que passarinho não bebe as well) suggesting that pasteurized milk MIGHT NOT BE SAFE EITHER.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Best organized and most informative coverage we have seen, I think: Agência Brasil. “Why this problem is highly unlikely to kill you, even in the worst-case scenario” was sourced to a credible expert and explained using intuitive risk management and basic medical concepts, I thought, for example.

Problem: Practically no one seems to watch Radiobras or visit the AB Web site, according to IBOPE and

At any rate, I thought I would at least follow up to see if government flacks are doing a decent job of giving the public the straight dope on the issue. I will translate these FAQs pra inglês ver and then maybe look into some of the Ag Ministry’s dueling press releases and factual corrections.

1. Como identificar o lote e a validade do leite?

How do I identify the lot number and the “good until” date of milk?

As informações sobre o lote e o prazo de validade do leite constam do rótulo do produto.

That information is on the product label.

2. Há riscos para a saúde de quem consumiu o leite dos lotes recolhidos pelo Governo Federal, em que foram detectadas irregularidades?

2. Are there health risks to those who consumed milk from lots recalled by the federal government, in which irregularities were detected?

Foram encontradas irregularidades em apenas alguns lotes de leite UAT (Ultra Alta Temperatura). Os laudos dos exames laboratoriais dos lotes de leite recolhidos não indicaram a presença de soda cáustica. Assim, a eventual ingestão desse leite não resultaria em risco à saúde. (Veja aqui os lotes recolhidos)

Irregularities were found in only a few lots of UHT milk. Lab tests on the milk recalled do not indicate the presence of [sodium hydroxide, lye]. Therefore, any ingestion of this milk would not result in a health risk. (Click here to see which lots were recalled.)

That still leaves the question of, I think it was, bleach hydrogen peroxide allegedly or possible found in another tank (I heard, but then again, consider the sources) set up to feed into milk production vats.

It is a bit confusing to read (1) that the milk did not actually contain this banned ingredient, but (2) that the milk should not be consumed (Point 4, below).

3. Quais os procedimentos que devem ser adotados, caso o consumidor encontre leite com características suspeitas?

3. What procedures should be adopted in case the consumer encounters milk with suspicious characteristics?

A fraude detectada nos lotes de leite apreendidos não provoca alterações nas características do leite como odor, cor, sabor ou consistência. Ainda assim, caso os consumidores percebam qualquer aspecto diferente no produto devem comunicar o Ministério da Agricultura, por meio da Central de Relacionamento (número gratuito 0800 704 1995), todos os dias da semana, das 8 às 20 horas.

The fraud detected in the lots of milk that were seized does not cause changes in the characteristics of the milk, such as odor, color, flavor or consistency. Even so, if consumers do perceive some different quality in the product, they should call the Ministry, 7 days a week, from 8 am to 8 pm, at this toll-free number.

For the longest time, the disque-denuncia crime reporting line in Rio was a toll call. Which among other things made it less than secure and anonymous — or affordable to low-income informants.

4. O que fazer, caso tenha comprado leite dos lotes recolhidos?

4. What to do if one has bought milk from the lots that were recalled?

O leite dos lotes recolhidos não deve ser consumido. Se tiver adquirido leite desses lotes, o consumidor pode devolver o produto ao estabelecimento comercial em que o produto foi comprado.

Milk from those lots should not be consumed. If you have bought milk from these lots, return it to the store where you bought it.

5. Quais substâncias, permitidas por lei, podem ser adicionadas ao leite?

5. What substances are permitted by law to be added to milk?

As únicas substâncias que podem ser adicionadas ao leite produzido pelo processo de UAT são o citrato de sódio, o monofosfato de sódio, o trifosfato de sódio, separados ou misturados, numa quantidade não superior a 0,1 grama por 100 mililitros do produto. Essas substâncias são usadas com a função de estabilizante, ou seja, para evitar a separação dos componentes do leite dentro da embalagem. No caso do leite pasteurizado, nenhuma substância pode ser adicionada.

The only substances that can be added to UHT milk are sodium citrate, sodium monophosphate, sodium triphosphate, separately or mixed together, in a quantity not to exceed 0.1 grams per 100 ml of the product. These ingredients are used as stabilizers, that is, to avoid the separation of the components of the milk inside the package. In the case of pasteurized milk, no additives are permitted.

6. Como saber quem vende leite fora do padrão?

6. How do I know who is selling substandard milk?

Para certificar-se de que não há outras marcas e empresas de laticínios que comercializam leite fora do padrão, o Ministério da Agricultura está recolhendo amostras de 100% das marcas de leite vendidas no Brasil, para análises laboratoriais na rede de Laboratórios Nacionais Agropecuários.

To ensure that there are no other brands or companies selling noncompliant milk, the MiniAg is taking samples of 100% of the brands of milk sold in Brazil for testing by the network of National Agronomic Labs.

7. Posso confiar no Serviço de Inspeção Federal (SIF) do Ministério da Agricultura?

7. Can I trust the MiniAg’s Federal Inspection Service?

Há mais de 90 anos, o SIF trabalha de forma eficiente na fiscalização da produção de alimentos de origem animal no Brasil. As fraudes encontradas no leite são um problema pontual, fruto de ação criminosa. Encontrar indícios de fraudes em algumas indústrias de laticínios não significa que a qualidade de todo o leite produzido no Brasil esteja comprometida.

For more than 90 years, the SIF has been efficiently overseeing the production of animal-based food products in Brazil. The frauds discovered in milk production are not a systematic problem, but the fruit of criminal activity. Finding signs of fraud at some food producers does not mean that the quality of all milk produced in Brazil is compromised.

My kneejerk reaction: Not too bad.

Needs much more detail, though.

I would have started off the FAQ with (1) What exactly happened at that dairy you busted, anyway?

As I vaguely understand it, an inspection found tanks containing banned substances, or suspected of the samme, hooked up to production vats. I could be wrong, though.

So the feds shut down production and tested the milk to see if any of the bad crap had actually flowed in.

But how long was this hookup in place?

Did any bad milk go out undetected?

There is room for FUD if you leave that question unaddressed.

I am gathering that there are some bureaucratic requirements on information release, involving the fact that a police investigation is going on.

But you can work around that, right?

The phrase to hammer on here is “abundance of caution.”

Repeat after me: “abundance of caution.”

“Abundance of caution.”

I think most people understand this concept.

“I am not taking any chances.”

“Playing it safe.”

“You do not gamble with something as important as food safety.”

My free advice for government flacks in their battle against fear, uncertainty and doubt.

Next item to look at: crisis PR from Parmalat and the other milk producers. And to see if the Folha ombudsman commented on the story. He often does a nice, pithy, commonsense comparison of how his paper handled a story differently than the competition.
Neuza’s favorite “Got Milk” promotion.


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