A day in politics is supposed to be long time; a week must seem
like eternity for worried mothers using Milumil baby milk powder which
was pin-pointed as the possible cause of a rare form of salmonella found
in 12 babies scattered across the country.
Two weeks ago, parents swamped 45 helplines set up by Milupa, the
company supplying Milumil, as the product was withdrawn from shop
shelves and a warning issued to throw away all supplies immediately. The
operation followed a food hazard warning issued overnight by the
Department of Health.
The Government’s Public Health Laboratory Service said there could be a
common cause for the cases on the Monday, questioning parents of the 12
babies the next day. Tests were carried out over the next two days
before environmental health officers were warned to prepare to take the
product off the shelves on Thursday night, enabling the public to be
informed on the Friday. The dilemma is this - make an announcement a
moment too soon and the parties involved could have unnecessarily
created a wave of panic without a clear explanation of the actual
position and action required. Communicate a moment too late and the
ultimate crime is committed - a perception that vital information is
being withheld which could affect the lives of many thousands of
Milupa did what it had to and gave out a clear message - babies first
and company second - and in spite of no evidence of contamination,
Milumil was swiftly withdrawn throughout the UK and Ireland. Health
authorities and company officials issued clear advice, through the media
and helplines about discarding scoops and powder, and identifying
symptoms. Manufacturing was stopped and a company investigation
announced. So far, so good.
Then, as the story unfolded, other things came out. First, the Community
Practitioners and Health Visitors Association criticised the Department
of Health over what it believed was a critical two-day delay in
consulting frontline health professionals and co-ordinating the release
The counter argument was that until the Friday, there was insufficient
evidence to go on the alert.
Last week’s announcement of the appointment of a food safety chief to
head up a new Food Safety Council to try to restore public confidence is
welcomed. The test will come in the true authority and independence of
such a body.