Expired dairy products, harmful preservatives and hydrogenated oils being sold to unsuspecting customers
Amman (A Ghad/Radio Al Balad) – Everyday, Mu’een carefully arranges dairy products on refrigerator shelves in his shop in one of Amman’s malls. Leaving no empty spaces, he stacks new products in the back, and keeps older ones in the front.
Um Muhammad picks a medium-sized yoghurt tub from the shelf without looking at the date, places it in her shopping basket and goes to the cashier.
Once back home, she opens the yoghurt container to feed her son – yoghurt and eggs being his main morning meal. She carefully closes the lid and places the yoghurt in the refrigerator.
Um Muhammad, like thousands of women in Jordan, feeds her children dairy products every morning without paying any attention to the ingredients.
Conducted over a period of nine months, this field investigation detected health irregularities and environmental transgressions in seven fully automated dairy factories located in the governorates of Amman and Zarqa; this out of a total of 85 factories and plants in the country. With the help of a journalist and a volunteer who went undercover to work inside two dairy factories, we obtained evidence that some factories are tampering with manfacturing dates on some of their products.
Lab tests conducted on 14 samples of dairy products from different factories have also revealed an abundance of ‘unhealthy’ dairy products that contain preservatives and hydrogenated oils which, according to Jordanian standards, are banned from use in the manufacture of dairy products.
Some of the factories and plants even lack the basic sanitation and quality assurance requirements, which adversely affects the health of many Jordanians. This is seldom detected by the state due to insufficient numbers of inspectors and weak monitoring on the part of the Jordanian Food and Drug Administration (JFDA).
There are conflicting statistics on the number of dairy factories and plants in Jordan. The JFDA’s statistics for 2012 show 85 factories and plants operating in the country while the 2011 general census of ‘economic establishments’ counts a total of 754 dairy factories and plants.
The majority of those factories (424) are concentrated in the city of Irbid, with another 100 in Amman and 63 in Zarqa. The discrepancy can be explained by the fact that semi-automated dairy factories are not registered with the monitoring authorities.
Meanwhile, the number of full time inspectors and controllers employed by the JFDA does not exceed 168 employees while the number of part time Ministry of Health supervisors stands at 268.
Dairy factories and workshops produce an estimated 241.65 tonnes per annum according to the Department of Statistics. The department relies in its estimations on the quantities of milk sold by the local cow farms to the producers. The Kingdom’s total expenditure on dairy products and eggs amounts to around 463 million Jordanian Dinars per annum, according to the 2010 survey on family income and expenditure.
After an initial research through factories to which we could gain access, our colleague Mohammad Ta’ani applied for a job as a “worker”, which was advertised by a factory on Zarqa. During his employment, he used a hidden camera to document major violations that took place without the knowledge of the inspection and monitoring teams.
Before employing Ta’ani, the factory asked him to provide a “health certificate”, which gave us the impression that the factory must be implementing health standards and abiding by labour regulations. The reality of the situation inside the factory, however, was a completely different matter.
More of a garage than a factory
Inside the factory, which was built 50 years ago, one engineer can hardly be heard, over the sound of machines, as he calls on a worker to hand him a ‘screwdriver’ to repair a machine that kept breaking down every thirty minutes. The machine kept spilling yoghurt onto the floor, where it fermented, creating a putrid smell.
At the bottom of the staircase, there was the ‘discarded merchandise’ room where ‘expired’ yoghurt containers returned from the market were opened and their contents emptied into a large container and converted into other products: cheese and ‘labneh’.
During break-time, workers discuss the issue of broken machinery. They are free to walk anywhere in the factory, except for one room which is out of bounds; the ‘laundry room’.
We managed to enter this room and found it filled with empty yoghurt containers. In the middle of the room was a large container filled with soap and water which was used to clean the containers before refilling them. Flies flew around the room, which was filled with the stench of the rotten yoghurt.
The smell in lavatory, which was totally run-down, was also repulsive. Neither disinfectants nor soap were on hand for the workers to wash up after using the toilets, even though they were not wearing gloves and worked in close proximity to the dairy products throughout the entire production process.
A long discussion took place between the worker and the engineer to decide on the production date to be stamped on the container and whether they should advance it for a day or two. They were disregarding the original production date either way and finally decided on ‘two days’.
The containers pass under the stamping machine where they are given a later date than their original production date. The container-filled cartons are then placed into the refrigerated vehicles during the early morning hours while the expired containers are returned to the factory in the afternoon to be reconverted into other products.
The workers were bewildered when the environmental police cars and the Zarqa municipality health inspectors arrived to inspect the samples in the refrigerators. They all started running around, some looking for cleaning utensils while others hurried towards the refrigerators to empty them before the inspection started.
An hour’s worth of inspection was all that was needed to dispose of all the expired dairy products. The inspectors placed them in a big container and moved them to the garbage bins outside the factory. They fined the factory and took it to court.
With thirty years experience in the Jordanian market and having worked in reputable dairy companies in the governorate of Zarqa and the Sweileh area of Amman as Head of Sales and Marketing — the man who wanted his identity to be protected and thus preferred to be referred to as ‘Hussam” – says that many Jordanian companies do not abide by health standards nor do they apply specifications to each and every product.
The Director General of the JFDA, Dr. Hayel Obeidat, confirms that his administration issued 139 warnings to factories, cited 23 violations and closed down 4 factories in 2012. The author of this report tried to get hold of the names and details of those companies to compare them with the list of factories that were identified in this investigation as violating standards. The Administration, however, insisted they would not provide us with any information in this regard.
According to its regulations, the JFDA can issue warnings and impose penalties on factories for violations deemed as ‘non-critical’, “such as not respecting the clothing regulations inside the factory or not having a license”. In case of critical violations that pose health risks to consumers, the JFDA has the authority to close down factories. In this case, factories must redress the problems and pay a fine in order to open again.
Violations in Other Factories
During the investigation, we received unverified information that one factory in Amman was buying discarded dairy produce from other factories, re-packaging it, and then selling it as their own.
We sent in a volunteer, R.A, to apply for work in that factory. She was hired as a “cleaning woman”, but the factory did not ask her for a health certificate, nor did she undergo a laboratory test to make sure she was healthy.
R.A was asked to empty the ‘cheese’ containers of another factory into her employers’ plastic bags and to send them to the refrigerator. She also saw other workers changing the production dates. ‘Labneh’ and cheese were being prepared in big quantities and stored in the refrigerators without dates stamped on them. Specific quantities would then be taken out when orders were made. The supervisor would place the cheese and yoghurt in the bags, without using gloves, and would then proceed to label the product with the date on which it left the factory.
If there is not enough yoghurt or ‘labneh’ to cover a particular order, the factory resorts to discarded produce bought from other factories. An engineer would erase the old production dates using ‘acetone’ and then stamps on a new date.
The head of the Health and Professional Control Department at the Greater Amman Municipality, Dr. Mervat Mheirat, says it is illegal for employees not to have a health certificate. According to article 14 of the Artisanal and Industrial Law, any manager found in violation of the law is either to prison for up to a week or fined up to 10 Jordanian dinars, or both.
Harmful hydrogenated oils in yoghurts
We went to different stores in the capital Amman and randomly picked 14 samples of dairy products made by different producers. They were then submitted for laboratory analysis to the Department of Nutrition and Food Technology at the University of Jordan’s Faculty of Agriculture – as a neutral and both administratively and financially independent body – in favour of the Investigative Reporting Unit at Radio Al Balad.
A two-week test revealed that 7 out of 14 samples violated Jordanian specifications for yoghurt. For example, a sample of ewes-milk-yoghurt violated Jordanian specification number 135/202 where “the fat content and the percentage of Total Soluble Solids (TSS) are lower than the minimum required for yoghurt”.
Tests on ‘shaninah’ (a yoghurt-drink) also revealed levels of a food preservative called (benzoic acid)”, which is a violation of specification number 1648/2005.
A sample of ‘jameed’ (a liquid salted yoghurt drink) also contained (benzoic acid), violation of specification number1547/2003. A sample of ‘solid jameed’ revealed that “humidity exceeded the maximum allowed percentage of 20%”, a violation of specification 462/1997.
Results have also shown that samples of ewe yoghurt, feta cheese and Turkish labaneh contain oils “not originating from milk”. According to Dr. Sanaa Gammoh, a drug and nutrition health and safety expert, this implies that factories “are using hydrogenated oils”.
Dr Gammoh says these results are “not good”, because these oils are produced by heating vegetable oils to very high temperatures and injecting hydrogen to transform them from liquid to solid form. This poses health risks to heart patients and those suffering from blood pressure. “It also makes the body more susceptible to infections, diabetes, heart disease and increases the levels of harmful cholesterol (LDL) in the blood”.
The use of Benzoic acid in dairy products could also weaken the body’s immune system and is particularly harmful to children as they consume a large amount of dairy products on a daily basis. According to our expert, it also constitutes a violation of Jordanian standards and specifications: The presence of benzoic acid in a sample of ‘shaninah’ violates specification MKA 1648/2005, article 13-4 which stipulates that it is not permitted to “add food preservatives”. The liquid ‘jameed’ sample violated specification number MKA 1547/2008, article 3-4 of which specifies that all products should be “free of preservatives”.
The presence of hydrogenated oils indicates the use of powdered milk in the manufacturing of these products. This violates Jordanian specifications since – according to Gammoh – the use of fresh milk does not require the injection of hydrogenated oils to improve the quality of the product.
Confronted with the results, the JFDA Director, Hayel Obeidat, did not deny that these hydrogenated oils violate dairy product specifications and asked for the names of the factories. He said the JFDA would verify the results of the laboratory tests and, if violations are confirmed, would deal with the factories involved.
However, the author of the report found documents showing that the JFDA itself has authorised specific companies to add hydrogenated oils and antibiotics into some dairy products. Having been appointed as Director General of the JFDA only eight months earlier, Obeidat denied having issued any such authorisation during his term in office.
K.M. is the owner of a company in Amman, which is licensed to import hydrogenated oils and food preservatives. In an interview, he confirmed that he supplies dairy factories with “Netamycin”, an antibiotic that is used in the production of cheese to extend the product’s shelf life. He also confirmed that he supplies the factories with hydrogenated oils that are mixed with powdered milk in order to improve the quality of milk. However, he refused to provide us with any documents related to such sales for fear of harming his business relations with his client companies and factories.
The lack of concern by dairy manufacturers with regard to the quality of their products has led customers, in some incidences, to stop dealing with them, such as Al Farah Hospital.
The hospital’s purchasing manager, Mohammad Al Abbas, says they stopped dealing with a dairy factory – whose name he refused to mention – after finding “remains of hair and other impurities” inside the yoghurt and pasteurised cheese containers. He added that the produce sometimes arrived at the hospital unrefrigerated and in unsanitary conditions.
A sales representative – who preferred not to mention his name – says the percentage of discarded products goes up in the summer. “Some shop owners reject the products for their smell, they are not properly refrigerated, and delivery trucks do not always function well in heat”. He also describes the conditions of delivery trucks and refrigerators in the factory as “catastrophic” saying that management does not even conduct regular routine maintenance. He stated that this is the case in all three different factories at which he worked during his three years of experience in this field.
Poor storage facilities
During a field study, covering more than 30 stores and stockrooms in the northern and central parts of Amman, we came to one place in Jabal Al Nuzha, east of the capital.
There, we found a store specialized in selling dairy products, mainly yoghurt and cheese. But inside the store, the refrigerator had broken down. In order to prevent the products from spoiling, the shop owner was moving some products into another refrigerator usually reserved for soft drinks.
When we asked the shop owner why the yoghurt container was warm, he told us that “the sales representative has just delivered the merchandise warm because the refrigerator inside the delivery truck had broken down too”.
During our field study, we also noted that some shop owners were unaware of the correct procedures for storing dairy products, and did not abide by safety and health standards such as maintaining storage temperatures at a maximum of 10 degrees Celsius. We also discovered that more than 20 shop owners turn off electricity, including refrigerators, at night to cut down on their electricity expenses.
Switching off the electricity on refrigerators is a violation of article number 6 of the Food Law of 2009 which stipulates that “if trading food occurs in conditions or circumstances violating the hygienic measures issued by the JFDA, the person in charge is penalized either by a jail term (of no less than 2 months and no more than 6 months), or fined (anywhere between 250 to 1000 Jordanian dinars) or both jail term and a fine. The burden of proof that this was not with his/her knowledge lies with the accused”.
The head of the Health and Professional Control Department at the Amman Municipality, Dr. Mervat Mheirat, says storage violations are mainly due to the fact that dairy producers do not follow-up with retailers to ensure that their products are bring stored appropriately. Mheirat confirmed that samples with the highest failure rate in the Municipality’s laboratory testing over the past 3 years were “random samples of yoghurt and cheese displayed in and collected from different stores”. She explained that in most cases, this is due to improper storage by shop owners. According to Mheirat, in the past year the number of samples found to be in violation of standards and specifications was 588 — a ‘fail’ percentage of 33%.
Responsibility for the monitoring of dairy companies falls jointly with the JFDA -which does this for the entire Kingdom- and the Awareness, Guidance and Control Committee for the Industrial Sector which is an affiliate of the JFDA and covers the cities of Amman, Zarqa and Madaba.
Shortage of staff, according to the JFDA’s Director General, Hayel Obeidat, prevents it from ensuring the quality of every food product found on the Jordanian market. However, he objected to the attempt to lay all blame with the JFDA for the lack of proper monitoring and control. According to him, more than one agency shares the responsibility for this with the JFDA.
The Consumer Protection Society (CPS), represented by its director, Dr. Mohammad Obeidat, confirmed that it had made many attempts to communicate with the JFDA to consolidate monitoring efforts. The CPS even asked the JFDA to revoke permits granted to some manufacturers for importing hydrogenated oils. The JFDA has never responded to repeated attempts in this regard.
Banned powdered milk in use
Our hidden cameras inside two dairy factories did not help us to directly document the use of powdered milk in the production of yoghurt. The testimonies of former employees in those factories, however, revealed the various ways in which factory owners hide the powdered milk inside and outside their factories for use at a later date.
While working on this report, a decision issued by the Ministry of Agriculture on 19/12/2012 decreed “the suspension of importing skimmed milk as a means of supporting cow farmers, seeing as this milk is used in the production of yoghurt and cheese. This decision takes effect in early 2013”. The Secretary General for Livestock at the Ministry of Agriculture, Engineer Faisal Al Arkan, stated that “the powdered milk market was brought under control at the beginning of 2011, after the Ministry of Trade and Commerce transferred to the Ministry of Agriculture the task of issuing permits to factories. The Ministry of Agriculture does its utmost to help the owners of cow farms”.
Of the 34 food companies in Jordan which import powdered milk, only 5 dairy companies are licensed to do so for the purpose of producing feta cheese, cooked cheese, flavored milk and long life milk. Jordanian law bans the use of powdered milk in all other dairy products, in accordance with the specifications adopted for each of those products.
According to the Ministry, 3200 tons of powdered milk were imported in 2010, but this amount has shrunk to 2050 tons in 2011 – a decline of 1150 tons.
However, the decision to control the import of powdered milk does not seem to have been implemented optimally. We sent an undercover volunteer into one of the five factories authorized to produce feta cheese, after we received initial information that it is selling its surplus powdered milk to other companies.
Our volunteer introduced himself to the dairy plant owner as an Arab investor aiming to open a small plant for the production of biscuits in Jordan. The factory owner was quick to offer to provide him with all the needed quantities of milk and to obtain all the required permits and licenses without any hassle, on condition that the investor prepares an economic feasibility study for the project.
According to industrial specifications, fresh milk is considered the main component in manufacturing dairy products but complaints made by cow farmers refute the factory owners’ allegations that they use fresh milk in their factories.
There are 68,000 cows in Jordan distributed over 832 farms which produce up to 49.5% of local production annually. Investment in this sector is estimated at 500 million JD. One kilogram of fresh milk from a farm costs 46 piasters while one kilogram of imported powdered milk for all production purposes only costs 19 piasters after it is dissolved in water.
Notwithstanding, Salah Bader – a cow farm owner – complains about the moodiness of “factory owners’ and their control over milk quantities”. He wonders: “How can a factory do without fresh milk and return it to us or place orders for very small quantities when its own products cover a quarter of the consumption of the Jordanian market?”
We returned to the owners of two dairy factories to allow them the right to respond to the accusations made against them by cow farm owners. Both assured us that their products were free of powdered milk and that the cow farm owners are the ones who tamper with the milk, diluting it with water and adding antibiotics to it.
The spokesman for the Cow Breeders Association, Engineer Hussein Mussalem, accuses a number of dairy companies of refraining from the use of fresh milk in their products and of using powdered milk instead in their daily production.
Consumer Protection Society issues a warning
While the JFDA failed to respond quickly to the Consumer Protection Society’s repeated calls, the latter moved ahead and published the mid-2011 report where it warns consumers against buying certain products that are not good for their health. The report lists products that were highlighted during our own investigation and cites the “violation of standards and specifications”. These include Turkish ‘labaneh’, Turkish salsa, the great coagulant, feta cheese, sterilized milk and cream cheese.
The head of the CPS, Dr. Mohammad Obeidat, says most violations recorded over the last year have been documented through extensive research, and over 100 customers’ complaints, which mostly relate to “the stench of yoghurt, rotting containers, expiration of the product and products that are unfit for human consumption on the Jordanian market”
The results of this investigation have been confirmed a year and a half after the CPS issued its warning about harmful dairy products that do not comply with industrial standards.
It is not possible to calculate how many tons of rotten yoghurt have been bought and consumed over the course of that time period. But this report has clearly shown a phenomenon of tampering with dairy products by some factories in order to maximise their profit. This constitutes a health risk for people who consume these products. The time has come for the authorities to focus their efforts on controlling those who tamper with the safety of such a basic food item.
This investigation was conducted with support from ARIJ and coached by Majdoleen Allan