The chemical analysis of eight Mexican brands that the Venezuelan government supplies to the low-income population through the Local Supply and Production Committee (CLAP), gives scientific determination to what appeared to be an urban legend: it may be powdered, but it is not milk. The fraud affects both the coffers and the public health, by offering as food a mixture poor in calcium and proteins, yet full of carbohydrates and sodium.
Carlos is just three years old. His mother, Mariana Álvarez, a 36-year-old teacher, takes him to the Nutrition, Growth and Development consultation at J. M. de los Ríos children’s hospital, the main pediatric center of Venezuela, in Caracas, the capital. The child is showing signs of malnutrition, a calamity in parallel expansion to the economic collapse experiences by the country. He weighs 12 kilos (26.45 lb), less than the average weight for his age. He gets tired as soon as he runs down the hospital corridor. When he smiles, his small, pitted teeth appear —a clear indication of decalcification.
"Fortunately, the box arrives and the milk is only for him," says the mother, pointing to Carlos with a trace of resignation. She refers to subsidized food distributed by the Government of President Nicolás Maduro through the so-called CLAPs, Local Supply and Production Committees. The CLAPs are the cover of a 2016 plan that turned into law weeks ago. It was aimed to finally release the production and distribution of food from the traditional commercial circuit, which the governing Chavism accuses of participating in an economic war against the self-proclaimed Bolivarian Revolution. To date, the program is in practice little more than a systematized distribution of bags and boxes with basic necessities - mostly imported - among popular sectors that constitute the electoral base of Chávez.
In addition to its purpose of political favoritism - frequently reported by opposition sectors -CLAPs have been a source of corruption revealed by the press. In any case, for those who obtain it, the so-called CLAP Box mitigates a good part of the uncertainty that entails the daily search for food in Venezuela.
Perhaps Mariana Álvarez, like hundreds of thousands of mothers across the country, is doing wrong by expecting the CLAPs to cover the basic nutrient needs of their offspring. In the case of powdered milk, commonly consumed in Venezuela, the disappointment can be fatal. Depending on the brand of milk used, Carlos, his son, may need to drink two to seven glasses of the reconstituted milk to get the amount of protein (7.7 grams/ 0.27 oz) usually contained in a glass of "regular" milk.
Another piece of information that adds to the scandal, and especially significant for Carlos, is that considering the Mexican milk brands included in the CLAPs, it would be necessary to drink from 13.1 glasses and 41.3 glasses every 24 hours to reach the minimum calcium requirement for 2 to 4-year-old children, based on 500 milligrams per day.
CLAPs’ powdered milk is a fraud. This conclusion is reached after reviewing the results of the chemical analysis performed on eight samples by the Institute of Food Science and Technology of Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV). The analysis was conducted at the request of Armando.info, which collected several milk presentations of the milk included in the CLAPs from September to December 2017.
Naturally, Mariana Álvarez is not aware of these results or the risk they entail for her son. Neither are aware the other mothers waiting in the J.M. de los Ríos children’s hospital.
"The pediatrician tells me that milk is calcium for children. That is why I give it to her only," says Omaira, the mother of a two-year-old girl and a three-month-old boy. "When I get the one that is very salty, the one with the little red cow, I sell it or change it for another one, because it makes her sick, it causes her diarrhea," adds this young mother who lives in Catia, a popular area in the west of the Venezuelan capital.
For her, as for most of the population that lives with the minimum integral income of less than 800,000 bolivars (or four dollars, at the parallel market exchange), the possibility of acquiring the product through regular marketing channels is impossible. The price of a bag of whole powdered milk ranges between Bs. 638,120 and Bs. 288,231, depending on the brand and the weight of the presentation.
Her only option is in the CLAP box, the Government-subsidized price of which recently rose to 25,000 bolivars. However, even though the combo is still affordable, it does not mean that it is nutritious, at least in the case of the powdered milk it includes.
Although they do not know the laboratory data, consumers have ways to realize it.
"Hopefully, the milk is not Mexican. It is of poor quality, salty. And we have good quality products in our country. Children and senior citizens cannot drink that milk," wrote Twitter user @yanezcoromoto on January 19 to Freddy Bernal, national head for CLAPs and Minister of Urban Agriculture. Two days later, the official had to read in his account another more emphatic twit: "The milk included in the box is disgusting," sentenced @vanezcoromoto
Based on the chemical analysis of powdered milks imported from Mexico for Venezuelan CLAPs, they violate the Covenin 1481 standard and the parameters of the National Nutrition Institute (INN) of Venezuela and the Official Mexican Standard 155-SCFI-2012 for milk, which raise questions about a program that the Venezuelan Government has not hesitated to describe as a "miracle".
It is a verification that Pablo Hernández, a B.S. in Nutrition and Dietetics from the UCV, summarizes with force. "They are not powdered milk, even if their nutritional facts label states so."
The Mac Leche brand milk that the public identifies as the one with "the red cow" in reference to its logo, manufactured by company Deshidratados Alimenticios e Industriales (DAI), the label claims that it contains 26 grams (0.91 oz) of protein per 100-gram (3.52 oz) serving of the product. The analysis showed that it only has 8.79 grams (0.71 oz). At the same time, its sodium content (604 milligrams/ 0.02 oz) almost doubles what the packaging says and what the INN standards establish.
The finding seems to explain the constant complaints of consumers about the salty taste of Mac Leche. They are not only opinions, but realities in the laboratory. The chemical analysis practiced on that milk brand, as well as the other seven from the samples obtained (Rancho Nuevo, Kosland, Suprema, KF Milk, Vital Milk, Pure Milk, and Soy Más), supports the versions that have filtered about them little by little through social media, and were about to become urban legends: They settle on the bottom, contain lumps, produce discomfort.
example, in Kosland milk, produced by company Productos Serel, there is an
excessive level of sodium, 600 milligrams (0.02 oz), although the package only
says 370 milligrams
(0.01 oz), just as recommended by Venezuelan and international standards.
This brand, along with Rancho Nuevo, Suprema, KF Milk, and Pure Milk, also stands out for its high carbohydrate content, higher than the level established by the standards and the one indicated in their packaging (from 78.45 grams/ 2.76 oz to 90.94 grams/ 2.76 oz per 100 grams/ 3.52 oz of the product). "Since they have more carbohydrates, it is logical to think that they thicken, that the solid goes to the bottom," explains Hernández, referring to another of the most common consumer complaints.
Based on the Food Composition Table (TCA) of the National Institute of Nutrition (INN), the proportion of carbohydrates in whole milk should be 38 grams (1.34 oz). Any surplus can also cause upset stomach, which is frequently reported in the testimonies of some consumers who drink Mexican milk from CLAPs.
"Sometimes they are good, sometimes they are bad, and make her sick. I mix it with fororo (toasted cornmeal), cream of rice or cornstarch. But if I give it to her as a plain glass of milk, it makes her sick," says Belkis, the mother of a five-year-old girl, at J.M. de los Ríos.
The version according to which coffee with milk does not foam if prepared with these Mexican brands has also become a classic of the networks. "It cannot foam because it has no protein, which produces foam," explains Hernández.
Despite the rumors in the networks, the Venezuelan government avoids referring to the issue. Neither Freddy Bernal, Minister of Urban Agriculture and national head of the Command and Control Center of CLAPs, nor the quality control management of the Sole Corporation of Productive and Food Services (Cuspal), attached to the Ministry of Food and successor of the extinct Corporation of Supply and Agricultural Services (CASA), answered the interview requests for this report.
President Nicolás Maduro barely made a very superficial reference to these complaints during his Sunday TV show on December 3. "It is not a secret for anyone. Those who listens to me knows that CLAP boxes and all CLAP products are national- and world-class quality. Am I lying? Once there were complaints here and there. We investigated it and took corrective measures because there were some bad-quality products. Corrective measures were taken immediately," said the head of state.
A Mexican producer, who accepted to speak for this report provided his identity is kept confidential, assures that in those same days when Maduro talked about "corrective measures" in the import of products, the Mexican suppliers received a communication from the Venezuelan Ministry of Food, ratifying the specifications of the products to be shipped. The document, which still showed the letterhead of the Quality Management of the extinct Corporación CASA, following Covenin standards, indicates that the proportion of proteins for "whole milk" should range between 24.5 grams (0.86 oz) and 37.4 grams (1.31 oz).
"The milk they are sending is a real crap," the businessman agrees crudely. "The intermediaries (of the Government) requesting that milk are as responsible as the vendors selling that product".
Only one of the eight samples analyzed in the Institute of Food Science and Technology of the UCV is close to the requirement of the official Venezuelan document, the Vital Milk brand made by company B-Emminent of Mexico, with a protein content of 26.36 grams (0.92 oz), slightly below the 29 grams (1.02 oz) indicated on the package.
The absence of proteins and calcium prevents these products from fulfilling their nutritional function in a country where the signs of malnutrition are increasingly visible.
"They eliminate hunger but they do not nourish adequately (...) The caloric intake is close to the average of a reference milk, but they do it by covering the deficit of proteins and fats with an excess of carbohydrates", highlights Hernández.
They also pose a risk for Venezuelans with diabetes (7%-10% of the population), while the excess of sodium present in several brands is harmful for people with hypertension, a condition that affects 35% of Venezuelans and contributes to cardiovascular diseases, the country's leading cause of death.
Four out of the eight brands analyzed state on their packaging that they are "cow's milk;" two others are presented as plain "milk" and two more, KF Milk and Pure Milk, produced by Dilac, are defined as "dairy products". These last two, with their modest euphemism, could be taken from Covenin and INN regulations, since there are no official parameters in Venezuela for products identified as "milk-based drinks" —substitutes usually prepared from whey and milk solids that has flooded the market in recent years. But the others simply lie.
"As a consumer, you have to know that this is not milk (...) If all of them are identified as a dairy product or milk-based drink, there is nothing to judge. The problem is that they are identified as milk, yet the protein and fat content do not correspond," says Marinela Barrero, a food technology specialist and researcher at UCV’s Institute of Food Science and Technology.
The Rancho Nuevo brand, manufactured by company Fuks S, is the champion in the breaching of standards. The chemical analysis confirms that it barely reaches 3.82 grams (0.13 oz) of proteins; just a tenth of what it is required by the Venezuelan INN. Although it is identified as milk, the label itself lists among its ingredients, milk solids, corn solids, maltodextrin, and vegetable fat, corresponding rather to "milk-based drinks". The product barely provides 1.1 grams (0.03 oz) of protein per glass, seven times less than the 7.74 grams (0.27 oz) contained in a glass of whole milk. Other similar cases are Suprema milk, made by company Brandon Group, which only provides 1.4 grams (0.04 oz) of protein and is identified on the package as milk, and Pure Milk, with only 1.9 grams (0.06 oz) per glass but sold as a dairy product.
could a malnourished person recover with that? This is like giving rice flour or
- products with similar nutritional contributions - to a child," warns nutritionist Hernández, who is also a professor of Human Nutrition at UCV and a member of the Venezuelan Health Observatory.
Although such a low nutritional quality affects children more, it does not leave adults unharmed. To cover, only by intake of milk, the requirement of one gram (0.03 oz) of calcium daily, an adult would have to take between 28.9 glasses per day (in the case of Suprema milk) and 82.6 glasses (in the case of Mac Leche).
If in this micronutrient is fundamental for the bone and dental development of children, it is also important for adults. The INN official document called Energy and Nutrient Reference Values ??for the Venezuelan Population, which gathers the nutritional guidelines of the country, reports that 99% of the calcium in the body is part of the bones and teeth, while the rest is in the blood, extracellular fluids, muscles and tissues, where it acts in several metabolic processes like vasoconstriction, vasodilation, muscle contraction, nerve transmission, and glandular secretion. It also states that not only osteoporosis but also cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, obesity and colon cancer are associated with calcium insufficiency.
This protein and calcium deficit is not sideline information in a Venezuela where severe malnutrition has worsened. Ingrid Soto de Sanabria, a pediatrician, clinical nutritionist and head of the Nutrition, Growth and Development service of J.M. de los Ríos, knows it. Up to 75% of the children who come to her office have some degree of malnutrition, and the cases of severe malnutrition (classified as marasmic, edematous or mixed) do not stop increasing. If three years ago malnutrition represented 6% of the cases attended, one year later it was present in 15.8% of the cases, and in 2017 in almost 20 of every 100 cases. Only in January of this year, his service treated 15 children with "serious" malnutrition, three times more than those treated in January.
Despite the importance of the CLAP program, the national government has managed the massive purchase of food in Mexico, in full diplomatic tension between both countries, through intermediaries or traders of dubious origin, mostly registered in tax havens as Barbados, Hong Kong or Panama.
It is a millionaire business where companies have stood out alternately, like Group Grand Limited —which public prosecutor Luisa Ortega Díaz, removed by the Venezuelan Government, directly related to Nicolás Maduro— or Postar Intertrade Limited of Samark López, pointed out the last year by the Department of the Treasury as the figurehead of the Vice President of the Republic, Tareck El Aissami.
However, they are not the only marketers that have managed to sink their teeth into the business. The story of Mexican vendors confirms the entry and exit of "Venezuelan groups" in search of cheap products that provide a greater margin for a financial gain.
It is a profitable business. The figures recently offered by the head of CLAPs, Freddy Bernal, indicate that in 2016, nearly 27 million food combos were marketed. In 2017, almost 91 million combos were distributed, 86 million of which were assembled with imported products. If one takes into account that many of these products were Mexican and that each CLAP box contains one to two kilograms (2.20 lb-4.40 lb) of milk, it could be deduced that at least 40,000 tons of Mexican powdered milk were distributed and consumed in Venezuela over the past year.
The official figures of the Mexican Ministry of Economy maintain, in any case, that last year Mexico exported to Venezuela 56.2 million kilograms (123,899,791.35 lb) of powdered milk for a value of 27.9 million dollars, i.e. an average of around $ 0.5 per kilo. "A kilogram of whole milk (2.20 pounds) costs around three dollars in the international market, but what they are sending is worth less than half. They have been offered all the qualities, but they ask for the cheapest," confirms the Mexican vendor who prefers to keep his identity confidential.
However, in the invoices of companies like Group Grand Limited and other invoices of more companies analyzed by Armando.info for this report, the powdered milk is invoiced to the Venezuelan Government at four to nearly seven dollars per kilogram, including the value of the freight. It has been a substantial business for the companies and intermediaries, but heavy for the population.
* This is a work researched and published simultaneously by Armando.Info and the Excélsior of Mexico.
For some months now, parliament members of different opposition political parties have been offering to make informal proceedings on request before agencies like the Colombian Attorney General's Office and the United States Department of the Treasury. They issue letters of good conduct to those responsible for negotiations on the imports for CLAP combos, so that such agencies absolve or stop investigating entrepreneurs like Carlos Lizcano, a subordinate of the already sanctioned Alex Saab and Alvaro Pulido. The fact that the most active defense of the main social program and focus of corruption of the government of Nicolas Maduro comes from the heart of the National Assembly 'in contempt' is just one of the ironies of this story.
Adrián Perdomo Mata has just entered the list of sanctioned entities of the US Department of the Treasury, as president of Minerven, the state company in charge of exploring, exporting and processing precious metals, particularly gold from the Guayana mines. His arrival in office coincided with the boom in exports of Venezuelan gold to new destinations, like Turkey, to finance food imports. Behind these secretive operations is the shadow of Alex Saab and Álvaro Pulido, the main beneficiaries of the sales of food for the Local Supply and Production Committee (Clap). Perdomo worked with them before Nicolás Maduro placed him in charge of the Venezuelan gold.
A study by Mexican authorities confirms what the palate of the Venezuelans quickly detected: There is something odd in the Mexican canned tuna that comes in the combos of the Local Supply and Production Committee (CLAP). At least three of the brands that the poorest homes have consumed in the country since March 2016, when the state plan was formalized, have high proportions of soy, a vegetable protein that although not harmful, it does not have the same taste and protein contribution of tuna. Behind the addition of soy there is an operation to reduce costs where all the intermediaries, handpicked by the Venezuelan Government to buy the goods, have participated.
Gassan Salama, a Palestinian-cause activist, born in Colombia and naturalized Panamanian, frequently posts messages supporting the Cuban and Bolivarian revolutions on his social media accounts. But that leaning is not the main sign to doubt his impartiality as an observer of the elections in Venezuela, a role he played in the contested elections whereby Nicolás Maduro ratified himself as president. In fact, Salama, an entrepreneur and politician who has carried out controversial searches for submarine wrecks in Caribbean waters, found his true treasure in the main social aid and control program of Chavismo, the Clap, for which he receives millions of euros.
While the key role of Colombian entrepreneurs Alex Saab Morán and Álvaro Pulido Vargas in the import scheme of Nicolás Maduro’s Government program has come to light, almost nothing has been said about the participation of the traders who act as suppliers from Mexico. These are economic groups that, even before doing business with Venezuela, were not alien to public controversy.
Even though there are new brands, a new physical-chemical analysis requested by Armando.Info to UCV researchers shows that the milk powder currently distributed through the Venezuelan Government's food aid program, still has poor nutritional performance that jeopardizes the health of those who consume it. In the meantime, a mysterious supplier manages to monopolize the increasing imports and sales from Mexico to Venezuela.
When Vice President Delcy Rodríguez turned to a group of Mexican friends and partners to lessen the new electricity emergency in Venezuela, she laid the foundation stone of a shortcut through which Chavismo and its commercial allies have dodged the sanctions imposed by Washington on PDVSA’s exports of crude oil. Since then, with Alex Saab, Joaquín Leal and Alessandro Bazzoni as key figures, the circuit has spread to some thirty countries to trade other Venezuelan commodities. This is part of the revelations of this joint investigative series between the newspaper El País and Armando.info, developed from a leak of thousands of documents.
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As part of their business network based in Mexico, with one foot in Dubai, the two traders devised a way to replace the operation of the large international credit card franchises if they were to abandon the Venezuelan market because of Washington’s sanctions. The developed electronic payment system, “Paquete Alcance,” aimed to get hundreds of millions of dollars in remittances sent by expatriates and use them to finance purchases at CLAP stores.
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