The consumption of milk is not very common in Turkey. Annual fluid milk consumption per capita is currently 26 liters, while this figure is more than 100 liters across Europe.
The issue of milk consumption came under the spotlight after a ministerial project titled the “School Milk Program” began in which the Ministry of Education distributed free milk every morning to children in public schools. The program was initiated on May 3 in public schools across Turkey. The ministry’s aims are to increase milk consumption among children and to aid the nutrition of students from kindergarten to fifth grade. However, about 4,000 school children from public schools in various provinces were hospitalized for suspected food poisoning after drinking the free milk provided by the government, which sparked a heated debate across the country. Following the hospitalization of thousands of children, the government faced accusations of distributing low-quality or contaminated milk to students.
A scientific council charged with looking into the recent incidents was established jointly by the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Animal Husbandry. After conducting its investigation, the council released a written statement of its conclusions on Tuesday. In the statement, the committee of experts said samples of the milk given to students were taken to laboratories for comprehensive physical, chemical and microbiological analysis and announced that no evidence of bacterial toxins or harmful microorganisms had been found.
Following the release of the council’s statement, the question of why such a large number of students needed to be hospitalized after drinking the distributed milk has been raised. The experts say the cause might be lactose intolerance, the inability to digest and absorb lactose (the sugar in milk) that results in gastrointestinal symptoms when milk or food products containing milk are consumed.
The other question that has been raised is how children could not have known they were lactose intolerant before the school milk project. The experts say this might be a consequence of the low rates of milk consumption in Turkey, primarily among children. The annual milk consumption per capita is 26 liters, compared to over 100 liters on average across Europe. Most people do not drink milk regularly in Turkey. There are even some children in the country who have not drunk milk since they were weaned. As milk consumption is not common among children, the children’s bodies might have reacted to the milk when they drank it at school after the introduction of the new project. Turkish Food Safety Association (GGD) Chairman Samim Saner told Sunday’s Zaman that according to the recent investigation and test results from the scientific council, the school children did not become ill as a result of food poisoning. Therefore, the cause might be lactose intolerance, which is prevalent in Turkey as well as Asian and African countries.
Stating that there are data which say that 30 percent of the school children in Turkey have not drunk milk since they were weaned, Saner said considering the low rate of milk consumption in Turkey, it is not very surprising that many children became ill after drinking the milk given to them.Noting that the symptoms of lactose intolerance are similar to the symptoms of food poisoning, Saner added that the symptoms of food poisoning generally appear after seven or eight hours, but the symptoms the children experienced appeared only two or three hours after drinking the milk.
Meat and Dairy Stud Cattle Breeders Association (TÜSEDAD) Chairman Adnan Yıldız, who spoke to Sunday’s Zaman, highlighted the significance of the school milk project. Yıldız said TÜSEDAD intensively supports the project and added that even though some children were hospitalized after drinking the milk provided by the government, this project should continue.
Commenting on the scientific council’s conclusions, Yıldız said it had been proven that the children were not hospitalized because of food poisoning. He stated that not one child was diagnosed as having food poisoning out of the 4,000 school children who were hospitalized. “Most of these children were lactose intolerant individuals, which clearly illustrates that Turks are not in the habit of drinking milk every day,” Yıldız commented.
Turkish Union of Agricultural Chambers (TZOB) Chairman Şemsi Bayraktar has stated that the union finds the school milk project very necessary. He told Sunday’s Zaman that because milk consumption is low in Turkey, such a project will contribute to increasing the amount of milk that people drink to some degree and also help improve the Turkish dairy sector.
Bayraktar referred to data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) that annual milk production in Turkey is about 13 million tons, adding that although Turkey ranks 11th in the world in the milk production index, the level of consumption is very low. Therefore, this project will also help to balance supply and demand in the dairy sector. Education and Science Employees Union (Eğitim-İş) President Veli Demir, who spoke to Sunday’s Zaman, said the government was well-intentioned in launching the project but that some problems occurred during the implementation process because the government had not prepared the infrastructure in schools. Demir further claimed that the government had “slaughtered” a very important project due to bad planning and programming.
“Before starting the project, large refrigerators should have been installed at the schools to preserve the milk in healthy and hygienic conditions and the quality of the distributed milk is also important. The government should distribute high-quality milk to children,” Demir noted. Recalling that the main aim of the project was to increase the amount of milk consumed in Turkey, primarily among children, Demir further added that due to the recent incidents, people might develop negative perceptions about drinking milk, which is a good source of nutrients.