Feb 28

Recent research from a neighboring university has again brought attention to the issue of food product contamination, specifically in this case, baby formula. At first I thought there had been an outbreak of some sorts, but it wasn’t. It was “just” a research finding.

And yet, this particular finding sent people into panic. The thought of possibly drinking contaminated milk was so terrifying people demanded that the researchers disclose the brands that were contaminated. The media immediately did their own investigating. The Minister of Health was pressured to make a statement, and make a statement she did. Unfortunately, the comment only created another controversy and did not help with the actual issue.

But what is the actual issue?

The actual title of the study was Potensi Kejadian Meningitis Pada Neonatus Akibat Infeksi Enterobacter sakazakii Yang Diisolasi Dari Makanan Dan Susu Bayi. The team from Faculty of Veterinary Medicine analyzed 22 samples of baby formula and 15 samples of baby food and found that 22,73% of the baby formula samples and 40% of the baby food samples were contaminated with Enterobacter sakazakii. Google the bacterium name and you will find 516,000 references on Enterobacter sakazakii. The bacterium is known to cause neonatal meningitis. Gurtler et al. (2005) wrote that the first cases of neonatal meningitis believed to be caused by Enterobacter sakazakii were first reported in 1961 and research on this bacteria remains active until now. Kim and Park (2007) is just one of the recent publications.

Whenever we read about these research findings, we should keep in mind the original objective of the research. Topic wise, the research carried out by Estuningsih et al. was not really new, meaning that there are already many published research on Enterobacter sakazakii. Dr. Estuningsih herself has been actively researching this for awhile. So why is it now that the findings created a widespread panic? When there have not been any reported cases of bacterial meningitis caused by E.sakazakii in Indonesia?

Blame the sensationalist Indonesian media, I think, especially since the airing a certain program on one TV station that dedicates its content to the sleazy work of food tampering of basically every edible known to man. Now, I don’t mean we shouldn’t pay attention to this research finding, absolutely not. However, I believe that the findings of Estuningsih et al. were not meant to be an investigative report on the quality of baby formula in Indonesia and the poor conditions of food safety in Indonesia. She is a researcher on E. sakazakii and the team is reporting on potential effects of a local E. sakazakii strain found in baby food and baby formula. I should also mention that the findings also mentioned the need for more research to support the findings and not a recall of certain brands of baby formula and baby food. That was not the original objective. And in my scientific opinion, the Indonesian media has somewhat twisted the original objective and turned it into a national scare. Of course, the Minister of Health’s comment was unwarranted and totally unbecoming for a professor of medicine. But, to be fair, sometimes the media likes to take comments out of context. But if I may ask Madam Minister, maybe a neutral “we are looking into it” type of comment would be more appropriate?

The governing body on food safety, The National Agency of Food and Drug Control has already issued a statement about the issue of Enterobacter sakazakii in baby formula. It may not be enough for our already semi-paranoid society which is too bad. Irrational behavior can have damaging effects in the long run. Do we want to deal with baby food manufacturers lay offs if there is a drop in productions? The socio economic aspect is often forgotten in all the uproar.

Yes, we should all be more careful and vigilant on everything that goes into our bodies. We should prepare food and drink properly, keeping the universal precautions in mind. Always boil water at 100 degrees for at least 2-3 minutes after boiling to kill vegetative bacterial cells. Awareness and education is the key, not spreading panic!

References quoted:

Gurtler JB, Kornacki JL, Beuchat LR. 2005. Enterobacter sakazakii: a coliform of increased concern to infant health. Int J Food Microbiol. 2005 Sep 25;104(1):1-34.Click here to read

Kim SH, Park JH. 2007. Thermal resistance and inactivation of Enterobacter sakazakii isolates during rehydration of powdered infant formula. J Microbiol Biotechnol. 2007 Feb;17(2):364-8.