Brazil: Preliminary Notes on the Hermeneutics of Tainted Food Staples

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

A note I started last week before taking off to the coast to donate exotic North American proteins to the bloodsucking critters of the mat’atlantica ecosystem.

A billion years from now, they will find one preserved in amber, extract my genetic material from its abdomen, and clone a living specimen of 21st-Century Schizoid Man (homo globo). Just like in Jurassic Park.

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 “banned four companies from selling UHT milk.”

At the bottom of the report, however, 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: apparently contradictory headlines based on the same set of facts.

I like to collect specimens of this genre, which in the U.S. we have grown accustomed to calling “spin.” One of my favorite examples being

A Brazilian journalist gists reporting by a U.K. journalist that had run under the following headline:

The Observatório da Imprensa (Brazil) took that set of facts to imply that “the BBC has been found innocent of partiality in its coverage of financial affairs” by the Budd panel commissioned by the BBC Trust.

Now that my copy of E.D. Hirsch’s Conflicts of Interpretation has arrived here in Brazil, this might make an interesting case study along the same lines.

I have been curious to see how the Brazilian press would handle the story of a recall of milk after a facility in Minas Gerais was found to be set up to use prohibited additives in its production facility.

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

(Since then, other producers have been cited for substandard practices, but no product posing health risks has reached Brazilian baby bottles. Or at least that is how I understand the story at this point, having paid partial attention to the wildly contradictory and often gabbling coverage.)

“Food contamination” is a highly sensitive topic, frequently associated with mass hysteria, 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 barred four companies from selling UHT milk. It has been shown that the products have a high degree of acidity and alkalinity.

Acidity and alkalinity at the same time? When you mix acids and bases in the same suspension, they tend to react (rather violently), the end product being pH neutral.

Which is the whole point of the cheating allegedly going on: to achieve the proper pH balance by any means, fair or foul.

That is, I believe I read that the prohibited additives were simple alkalis and acids being used as a short-cut to meeting the pH standards.

I have yet to read anything about the actual health risks posed by these additives. (I later read that the risks are fairly low, but that a zero-tolerance policy is in effect. The context being a trade flap over whether Brazilian agroproducts meet EU food safety standards.)

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 th Avipal facility in Itumbiara (GO).

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 producers, 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 nonsense has been observed recently as well. See, for example,

The Agência Brasil reported yesterday (November 5, I think):

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 point.

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

The product must be refrigerated constantly thereafter to prevent new bacterial growth. Under a new standard, introduced, I think, in 2005, the producer also has to refrigerate the milk when transporting it to the pasteurization and bottling-boxing plant.
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 Folha, meanwhile, apparently chooses to gloss over the practical distinction between “temporary suspension for intensified inspection” and “interdiction.”

And another pertinent detail: Parmalat wishes (wished last week) to emphasize that some of its UHT production facilities have (had) already been checked and cleared.

Therefore, it is not true that all UHT milk has been suspended. So if you see Parmalat UHT milk on the shelves, your supermarket is not necessarily trying to poison you. It is UHT milk that has 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. You have to sympathize a bit with the poor bastard who has that job.

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 US, after running Folha reporting that thoroughly mystifies the issue, tacks on some glittering generalities intended to “demystify” the issue for the consumer.

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.

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

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

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

To be continued. See also

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