Milking the system
Wilaiwan Kongnan, 29, has been working at Ban Nam Lee primary school in northern Nan province for the past four years. Since day one she has found the school milk, delivered in bulk once a semester to her 21 students aged four to 12, spoiled.
Put to pasteur: Students at Ban Nam Lee primary school in Nan province pour out 400 cartons of school milk so it can be sent for testing.
“We have had a situation where a whole box of milk cartons was stale,” she said of the government-subsidised milk.
“When the kids have the first sip from a straw, they have to put it down immediately.”
Rural schoolteachers like Ms Wilaiwan don’t usually make national headlines. But last month, she and her school — situated deep in a valley of forests and corn fields — became the focus of a scandal involving the mismanagement of the school milk scheme.
After the students’ latest complaints, Ms Wilaiwan tried to shake one of the cartons, but noticed the milk inside seemed thick. She cut open a carton, poured the milk into a glass and tasted it. “It was so bitter and sour,” she said. “The milk itself looked a bit like set yoghurt. I found 10 more cartons like that in the same box.”
The spoiled cartons had an expiry date of Feb 27, 2016. The first thing she did was call the Ping Luang Local Administrative Office, which is in charge of sourcing milk supplies for the district’s schools.
“I tried to get in contact with the officer, but there’s not always a mobile phone signal here,” she said.
“There is Wi-Fi though. So I posted some pictures of the cartons on Facebook. I was angry that I had experienced this again.”
Early this month, a few days before the start of the official school holidays, education and local officials accompanied by military men flocked to the usually quiet school to find out what was happening. The education official supported Ms Wilaiwan, praising her for her determination to protect the students.
The local administration officials had a different view. As Ms Wilaiwan stood behind one of them, he turned towards her and whispered, “What you did is going to make your time here very difficult in the future.” She didn’t reply. She found out later the man was a driver for one of the local officials. “After that day, I no longer wanted to work here,” she said.
Remote schools like Ban Nam Lee highlight the need for the government milk scheme and also the inherent problems in making sure it works. The mountainous terrain and poverty make it hard to access good food, nutrition and the vitamins needed for a healthy life. Children in towns and cities have easy access to shops to buy milk. But those living in Na Muen, whose parents are mostly corn farmers, cannot afford to buy milk, even if they had access to shops.
Ms Wilaiwan’s exposure of the spoiled milk scandal was the opposite of what local administration staff had expected her to do. She said that some local officials believed she had harmed their reputations.
After the local administration office was notified of the problem with the milk, they replaced the cartons and told Ms Wilaiwan she should not go to the press or anyone else with her complaints. They added that had they been in charge of buying the milk from the start, the situation would not have happened.
Since 2009, the school milk scheme has been under the management of the Milk Board, which is comprised of the government’s Dairy Farming Promotion Organisation (DPO), the Livestock Department and the Cooperative Promotion Department.
The Milk Board selects milk manufacturers to join the scheme, making sure they can supply raw milk to match the quota. It also oversees the standards of the processing plants and the quality of the raw milk.
After the selection process each semester, 75 milk producers are chosen, including those under the DPO. The DPO then hands a producers’ list to local administrative offices nationwide. The producers are milk plants which buy milk from local farmers and process and package it. The majority are farming cooperatives, but some are privately owned. Contracts are signed based on the number of schools and students in each locale, and the amount of school milk needed for a semester delivered.
The Milk Board, which is under the Agriculture Ministry, has a 15 billion baht annual budget to manage the school milk scheme nationwide. It aims to supply more than 7.6 million students in more than 40,000 public schools, from kindergarten to primary level. Each student is entitled to a 200ml carton of milk for 260 days a year (100 days for each of the two semesters and 30 days for the two holiday breaks).
The Milk Board was established six years ago to clean up corruption in the scheme. Its original two-year tenure has been extended consecutively since 2009.
In that year, abuse of the scheme was so rife in Chumphon province that water was being added to the raw milk supply.
Finding faults: Suchart Jariyalertsak is the interim chief of the DPO.
“That year, when the local administration managed the bidding process, we found that competition to gain the school milk quota was so high that one manufacturer mixed water with the raw milk to increase their stocks of raw milk,” said interim DPO chief Suchart Jariyalertsak.
“The bidding competition had been very intense since local administrations managed the school milk scheme from 2001 under the zoning system.”
The zoning system specified that milk processing plants must be within a 100km radius of the school. But in reality, with a limited number of milk processing plants, only a few met the criteria. Another factor was that area-based bidding meant there was collusion between bidders to ensure they kept the contracts within a select group.
“The problem emerged in 2007 when we found out that manufacturers discussed among themselves, before the bidding, the cost range that they would propose that year in order to prevent others outside the group from winning.
“In 2009, it got to the point that there was an oversupply of about 200 tonnes of milk a day because manufacturers refused to buy raw milk unless they won the bid,” Mr Suchart said.
The milk problem in Nan province wasn’t restricted to little Ban Nam Lee primary school. Other schools had their spoiled milk supplies replaced, prompting the Agriculture Ministry to review its quality control of milk products.
Last Sunday, the ministry took the media on an inspection tour of several milk processing plants in Saraburi province, the country’s largest manufacturer of dairy products.
Muak Lek Dairy Co-op is one manufacturer which has been given approval to fill the school milk quota. Local farmers deliver 21 tonnes of raw milk a day, and the plant has the production capacity to turn that into 20 tonnes of school milk per day.
Frank Bendtsen, the co-op’s chief of research and development, said local farmers deliver the milk in urns themselves and they are tested for fat and bacteria content by staff to see if they meet quality standards. The milk has to be refrigerated quickly.
“The raw milk has to be stored at under 4C within two hours of milking,” he said.
Mr Bendtsen said the way farmers delivered milk to the plant differed from the method used in Europe. “In Denmark, plants collect the raw milk from the farm to ensure the highest quality,” he said.
The Milk Board’s challenge is to ensure that each co-op educates their members about quality control. School milk must be 100% natural with no additives like powdered milk.
The Somatic Cell Count (SCC) is considered the main indicator of milk quality. The majority of somatic cells are white blood cells, which increase in number as an immune response to an infection.
An SCC count of 1,000,000 or less per cubic cm of milk indicates a healthy cow.
In Thailand, chosen milk manufacturers must keep the SCC level of bulk milk tanks between 700,000 and 1,000,000. Agriculture Ministry officials also conduct random checks on farms to test animals for SCC levels.
“Co-ops must inform their members of the DPO’s technical requirements, including the level of the Somatic Cell Count which affect the shelf life of the dairy products,” Mr Suchart said.
The number of school milk manufacturers has remained steady throughout the years. But after recent inspections, Mr Suchart said for the new semester starting next month some manufacturers might find their quotas reduced or have their contracts cancelled.
There are more than 20,000 dairy farms across Thailand taking part in the school milk scheme. The government’s pricing guarantee for raw milk is now set at 19 baht per kilogramme.
Despite the recent problems with the scheme, Mr Suchart believes that overall it is helping farmers and manufacturers improve quality through stricter controls and inspections.
Thailand has a raw milk production capacity of 2,800 tonnes a day, or just over one million tonnes per year. A total of 40% of that goes to the school milk scheme and the rest to the commercial dairy sector.
According to the Agriculture Ministry, Thailand is the largest producer and exporter of dairy products in Asean.
In the case of Ban Nam Lee school, Mr Suchart said the supplier and manufacturer of the milk, UM Food Products Co Ltd in Lampang province, was found to be at fault. Food and Drug Administration inspectors visited the plant last month and found that a liquid flow meter to measure the pasteurisation process was not installed. “If milk flows at an inappropriate rate, maybe too fast, it might not receive enough heat to kill the bacteria,” he said.
He said UM Food is no longer part of the school quota scheme and its milk production has been suspended.
But milk production isn’t the only problem with the scheme. Poor storage and delivery of school milk has also been blamed for making children sick.
Agriculture Ministry officials visited the Country Fresh Dairy company in Pak Chong district of Nakhon Ratchasima last week for an inspection after controversy broke out when primary school students in Phichit’s Sak Lek school were taken to hospital after drinking milk at lunch.
Country Fresh Dairy’s sales manager Jessada Chuepong said they checked with their local distributor, who told them a sub-contractor had stored the milk cartons in straw barns out in the sun. When the milk cartons were delivered to the school in cardboard boxes, ice was put on top to keep them cool.
Mr Jessada believed that storing the milk in the sun or the melted ice somehow getting into the cartons despite them being sealed may have spoiled the milk.
Country Fresh Dairy’s local distributor Phitsanulok Gold Milk said it will educate its distributors about being more “careful” in the future. The company has contracts with local administrative bodies in five provinces: Phitsanulok, Phichit, Phetchabun, Nakhon Sawan and Kamphaeng Phet.
“Sometimes we make contracts with the local administration. But sometimes our sub-distributors hold the contracts in our name,” said manager Sitthisak Homchuen.
He said it had yet to be confirmed the milk was the cause of the children’s illness and school water supplies were also being tested. “We have already replaced the school milk supply for them so all sides are happy.”
At Ban Nam Lee school, Ms Wilaiwan ensures the milk boxes are stored in a dry and dark place on a library desk. However, she cannot ensure the delivery process. The concrete road stops 6km before the school and the pickup truck delivering the milk negotiates a rough, dusty road to the school’s gate.
NO MILK TODAY
Starfish Foundation School in Chiang Mai’s Mae Taeng district is a private institution and is not part of the school milk scheme. However, as it is a charity organisation which offers free education, it receives a subsidy for milk from the Education Ministry at a rate of eight baht per student.
The school opened in 2006 and manager Nathi Shuman said for the past few years the local education office made it mandatory for them to receive the school milk supply, despite the fact that a budget had been set aside for them to buy their own milk.
Ms Nathi said the school has now had enough of the supplied milk. “The Chiang Mai education office signed a contract with the local administration to source school milk, which is manufactured by the Huay Kaew Dairy Co-op in Muang district.
“Before the beginning of each semester, the sales representative from the co-op would visit the school with samples, which were always fine. We usually ordered four lots, to be delivered separately, of 30-carton boxes for our 118 students to drink during school days.
“We always found that the quality has never been consistent from semester to semester. It has a strange smell and the milk is thick. Kids don’t like to drink it. When we made a complaint, the co-op replaced the lot. But for the past two semesters, we informed the education office that we would prefer to buy the milk ourselves.”
On the receiving end of the school milk supply, Ms Nathi has no idea how things go wrong — whether it is during the production or delivery.
Asked if she knew that commercial milk includes milk powder, while school milk is supposed to be 100% pure, Ms Nathi said, “All dairy products can be combined with milk powder. We just want a product the kids like. We want them to say ‘it’s delicious’ after drinking the milk. That would make them like to drink it more.”
Ms Nathi said a consumer-based concept would probably improve the school milk scheme.
“Schools have no choice when it comes to product comparisons. The milk also only comes in one taste. I think the government should make sure the children like their products before choosing better manufacturers and distributors in the future.”
Cream of the crop: Muak Lek Dairy Co-op staff test for fat and bacteria content of raw milk. They must move quickly, as the milk has to be refrigerated within two hours of milking.
Healthy recognition: Teacher Wilaiwan Kongnan is awarded for speaking out over spoiled milk.
Raw deal: The spoiled milk at Ban Nam Lee was replaced after a teacher went public.
Spilt milk: Farmers pour their produce over each other to protest against an oversupply in 2009.
Milk shake-up: Agriculture Ministry permanent secretary Theerapat Prayurasiddhi inspects a milk processing plant in Saraburi province last week.