Reports of toxic milk trigger scare in Balkans

Feb 19, 2013, 10:16 AM EST
A bartender pours milk in a coffee at a cafe in Belgrade, Serbia, Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013. Reports that milk in the Balkans has been contaminated by a cancer-causing toxin have triggered a major health scare throughout the region, with authorities appealing for calm before official tests are conclusive.
(AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Reports that milk in the Balkans has been contaminated by a cancer-causing toxin have triggered a major health scare, with authorities on Tuesday appealing for calm before official tests are conclusive.

Most health officials in the region are insisting that the milk is safe and that even higher levels of aflatoxins are not harmful in small amounts. But a warning by a regional official has fueled doubts about the official line, suspicions fed by the region's widespread corruption and the cozy ties between politicians and industry.

Senior Serbian agriculture official Goran Jesic claimed on his personal website that out of 35 tested milk samples in Serbia, 29 had higher levels of aflatoxins than allowed. He published a list of various brands of milk with high levels, saying the government was keeping them secret.

"If you ask me whether to buy milk, the answer is 'no,'" Jesic, the official in charge of Serbia's breadbasket region of Vojvodina, told a media conference. "I can't say why the state was hiding them (the sample results); the state is to blame for this. This is not a political, but a security issue."

"I am a father of two children and that is why I published the results and I will always do that," he said.

A low dose of aflatoxin, linked to mildewed cattle feed, is not considered harmful, but high doses are linked to cancer, especially of the liver. The Balkans experienced an extremely dry summer last year, which affected crops, and provided conditions for the poisonous mold to grow, mostly in corn that is used as animal feed.

Serbia's National Consumers' Association maintained that the levels of aflatoxins were within the allowed limits. The organization said that 17 kinds of milk had been tested, and in 13 the toxin levels were on the upper limits, but not exceeding them.

Serbian government minister Verica Kalanovic said the Serbian agriculture minister would meet with representatives of milk producers, inspection services and the labs that tested the milk. She did not comment specifically on Jesic's accusations.

"Things are under control and the worst thing would be to allow panic to spread," Kalanovic said.

While advising people to drink only small quantities of milk, Dragan Papovic, who heads the National Consumers' Association in Serbia, said people would "have to drink three to 4 liters (1.06 gallons) of milk with high aflatoxin levels per day, and drink it for two to three years in order to have problems."

Bosnian veterinary officials said that concentrations of aflatoxin above the limit had been found in imported milk from Hungary, Slovenia and Germany and that a shipment from Serbia is also suspected. Recently, Bosnia's border controls have found the toxin in milk imported from Croatia.

All producers have been informed about the tests, officials said. The milk was intended for processing and packaging in plants in Bosnia and did not reach consumers.

Earlier this month, Croatian authorities pulled some brands of local milk that had been tested with higher levels of aflatoxin. The agriculture ministry said milk samples were sent to a laboratory in Vienna for further testing. The excessive levels of the toxin were also found in some samples of milk produced in Slovenia.


Niksic reported from Sarajevo, Bosnia. Jovana Gec contributed to this report.