The Mexican milk of the Claps - Many Brands, Poor Quality and Virtually One Supplier

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.

Whole cow's milk, which once had bad press but is recovering its nutritional prestige all over the world, is a food that contains fat, calcium, proteins, lactose and water in certain proportions prescribed in international standards. This objective definition is diluted when it comes to the packaged product labeled as Milk Powder, included in the combos of the Local Committees of Supply and Production (Claps).

The program, initially conceived as part of the communal economy system, ended up as a social control mechanism through the more or less consistent distribution of food packages. It also became a juicy opportunity for private importers linked to the government of Nicolás Maduro, who created program in 2016 as his final answer to the alleged Economic War, which based on his story, was led against him by the United States of America and the Venezuelan bourgeoisie.

Although the business arose prior to the sanctions imposed by USA, Canada, Switzerland and the European Union, the intermediaries chosen by the Government have been working in recent months to avoid the financial and logistics barriers that these measures entail. What seems to remain unchanged is the model of maximizing profits at the expense of consumers' health, mostly of the poorest sectors. The product supplied as milk powder in the Clap combos is a paste of zero nutritional values that does not deserve to be called milk.  

That was proved by a report published in February 2018 by Armando.Info based on the physical-chemical study conducted by the Institute of Food Science and Technology of Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV), at the request of the website, to eight brands of powdered milk distributed through the state plan in the second half of last year.

Now, eight months later, Armando.Info commissioned another physical-chemical analysis to the same research center. This time, the samples of six milk presentations were taken, all Mexican, which were the most common in the Clap combos distributed so far this year by the Government, namely, Lacto Más, Chimax, Santa Paula, Vitalac, Vilec and Vaca Milk.

None of them was analyzed in the previous study, but the results confirm the trends found at that time. The Mexican powdered milk of the Claps is a substance of variable composition that is still far from meeting the values recommended by the National Institute of Nutrition (INN) in the Table of Food Composition and in the Venezuelan Covenin 1481 standard on milk powdered.

Fraud and Malnutrition

There is hardly an improvement in the protein levels of the milk analyzed 2018 over the sample analysis of 2017. The improvement, which is insignificant and does not meet the required standards, looks even poorer if it is considered that it had to meet a requirement from the client, the Venezuelan State.

In February 2018, just two days after Armando.Info published the results of the first analysis conducted by UCV researchers, the Venezuelan Foreign Trade Corporation (Corpovex), responsible for centralizing public imports in Venezuela, sent a communication to the Mexican suppliers, requiring them to "mandatorily submit to the verification company and Corpovex the Sanitary Registry and the Certificate of Free Consumption in the country of origin of all shipped food corresponding to products” for the Claps, “either as combos or loose cargo."

According to the new results of the physical-chemical analysis by UCV, four of the analyzed brands contain protein parts close to the standard value of 29 grams per 100 grams (1 oz x 3.5 oz). In fact, the package of the Chimax, Vilec, Vitalac and Santa Paula brands claim to contain 29 grams of protein, which is not entirely true, as their protein contributions range between 25.32 and 27.8 grams (0.9 – 1 oz). Lacto Más, on the other hand, is scandalously below the standard ?3.47 grams of protein per 100 grams
(0.12 oz x 3.5 oz), not even a fifth of the amount set in the Venezuelan nutritional regulations.

The actual performance of the other components of the different brands remains meager and, worst of all, covered up by deception.

For example, the packages of Lacto Más, Chimax, Santa Paula and Vitalac claim having 900 milligrams of calcium per 100 grams (0.032 oz x 3.5 oz) of product. But the physical-chemical analysis made it clear that in fact, calcium ranges between 179.63 milligrams (0.006 oz) -Lacto Más- and 527 milligrams
(0.018 oz) -Santa Paula-, which is significantly below the 949 milligrams (0.033 oz) of calcium required for whole milk powder under the Venezuelan nutritional standard. Vilec, identified as semi-skimmed, has 528 milligrams of calcium per 100 grams (0.019 oz x 3.5 oz), less than half of the 1,290 milligrams
(0.046 oz) set by the regulations for skimmed milk powder.

The difference entails that a child between two and four years of age should take more glasses of the product to meet the minimum daily requirement of calcium with milk alone. Children would need to drink 3.2 glasses of Vilec and Santa Paula milk brands and 9.3 glasses of Lacto Más, instead of the 1.8 glasses that would be enough if it were a standard whole milk. While adults would need 6.3 glasses of Santa Paula milk and up to 18.6 glasses of Lacto Más to meet their daily demand of calcium.

Pablo Hernández, professor of Human Nutrition at UCV, warns that the lack of this element can cause serious decalcifications in the future.

In addition to the low calcium detected, again, there is excess carbohydrates and sodium. In Lacto Más alone, the carbohydrate content exceeds by 215.8% what is established by the standards and, yet worse, the actual value almost doubles the one reported by the manufacturer on the label.

Sodium levels are also exorbitant. Chimax has 1,856 milligrams (0.065 oz), five times the 370.8 milligrams per 100 grams (0.013 oz x 3.5 oz) of product established in the standard. In the Santa Paula brand, the result of 1,632 milligrams (0.057 oz) quadruples the maximum amount indicated by the National Institute of Nutrition. These doses almost exceed the daily sodium intake recommended by the World Health Organization, set at less than two grams (0.070 oz).

Complaints of consumers against some of these brands are common on social media. "The Lacto Más milk that comes in the Clap is terrible. I spent two days with an acute heartburn after consuming it. I regret that Mexico is sending us this terrible milk. The corrupt people from here and there will be accountable to God for poisoning the children of Venezuela with that milk," user @joseprool tweeted on July 2.

Maritza Landaeta, research coordinator of the Bengoa Foundation and a doctor specialized in Food and Nutrition Planning, warns of the risks of excess carbohydrates among traditional consumers of milk powder in the Venezuelan homes. "This causes the child to present flatulence, a bloated stomach, pain and even vomiting and diarrhea. The same happens with die elder."

She also stresses that in a context of malnutrition, as reflected in the most recent bulletins by Cáritas Venezuela, and a greater dependence on the Clap box, these products aggravate the health situation of Venezuelans.

"Children who arrive with severe kwashiorkor or edematous malnutrition (swollen by lack of protein), or marasmatic malnutrition (skin attached to the bones for lack of calories), have among their history the ingestion of these products, which aggravate the situation because somehow they work as if the child acquired an infection, and cause diarrhea, vomiting, stomach ache, and the child rejects food and begins that vicious circle of infection and malnutrition."

Last May, the president of the National Assembly’s comptroller's office commission, Freddy Superlano, filed a complaint with the Mexican Attorney General's Office for the poor quality of the milk powder that the country exports for the Claps, but it essentially served no purpose.

Fifth and Only

One of the brands subjected to analysis ?Vaca Milk, packaged by the Mexican company B-Eminent Inc., avoids referring to its product as milk, and identify it on its packaging as a dairy product. The euphemism at least offers consumers the chance to know that it is not milk and more freedom for traders since the Venezuelan law does not provide for specific values for this type of product that may be breached. This does not mean that it is healthy though. The UCV study found that its carbohydrate content almost doubles that required for whole milk and its calcium level is the lowest of the six samples analyzed.

Vaca Milk was the product shown by the Minister of Food, Luis Alberto Medina, during a TV broadcast last June while inspecting a Clap distribution center. "We are in another center for Clap food packaging, verifying the quality of the product," he explained.

Furthermore, Vaca Milk is the only one that does not appear as produced by the same provider of the other five brands, which is somewhat surprising when considering the variety of formulas and content proportions checked about them.

"One would expect the manufacturer to have a standard formula for their product. If the products are different, you must change the labeling (...) They certainly do not produce a quality product nor do they comply with Venezuelan regulations. And it's definitely not milk," says nutritionist Pablo Hernández.

"We may not be in the presence of a milk powder factory but just a filler or packer that only buys second-class milk powder. They are not even dehydrating milk," says Rodrigo Agudo, director of the Venezuelan Institute of Milk and Meat (Invelecar).

That company, which both experts make a spoken portrait of, is known as Grupo Brandon. With their variants in quality, name and content - all equally mediocre though - the Lacto Más, Chimax, Santa Paula, Vitalac and Vilec brands belong to Grupo Brandon.

Grupo Brandon has been omnipresent in the Clap boxes sold this year. It is practically unknown in business circles in Mexico, a country with no tradition of exporting dairy products, unlike the United States of America, Holland, Argentina or New Zealand. Based on the evidence, his motto should be "Many brands and no quality."

In 2018, Grupo Brandon became the main supplier of the product for the Clap program. Their packages, which always warn that the milk is aimed "solely for distribution in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela," show two addresses, and another one registered in some manifests, that lead to the state of Nuevo León, north of Mexico. In all cases, they lead to offices that have nothing to do with milk production.

That does not prevent the company from affirming on its website, "We are a 100-percent Mexican company with fifteen years of experience in the market, selling foodstuffs, mainly dairy products." The website was created last year, shortly after changing owners and right before their items began to be included in the government combos.

There are no references to the brands that it sells, but the company maintains that its mission is to offer "top-quality products at the best possible price."

The incorporation papers show that Grupo Brandon was incorporated in November 2004 and belonged to the Marcos Corella family for thirteen years. On April 5, 2017, it passed into the hands of Javier Eduardo Rodríguez de La Fuente, of barely 21 years old, and Mario Alberto Valdez Díaz, a 19-year-old teenager. Shortly after, the exports of milk to Venezuela began. Last December, Raymundo Almaguer Macías was appointed as agent of the company and the Clap business was already on track at full speed.

Christian Marcos Corella, of the family that originally controlled the company, did not answer the interview request for this report.

In the Deputy Secretariat for Health Regulation and Promotion, the agency in charge of granting the free sale certificates for the export of milk in the state of Nuevo León, are in the dark about Brandon's operations and cannot find answers to explain the increasing volume of their exports to Venezuela.

The bonanza, in which Grupo Brandon participates, is expressed in numbers. According to figures from the Ministry of Economy of Mexico, in March 2018 alone, two months before the questioned re-election of Nicolás Maduro as president of Venezuela, Mexico exported 56 million kilograms of milk powder to the South American country, practically the same volume dispatched in total in 2017.

The Federal Attorney's Office of Consumer (Profeco) does not seem to know Grupo Brandon either. A study published last April on the quality of 23 brands of milk and dairy products sold in Mexico, does not include any of those sent to Venezuela or even one manufactured for that market by the company that has ended up monopolizing powdered milk shipments for the CLAPs.

The Usual Acquaintances

Those who do have a relationship with Grupo Brandon are Colombian entrepreneurs Alex Saab and Álvaro Pulido. Some of the companies that they control in the shade and with which they manage a good part of the food imports for the Claps are precisely those that have bought thousands of kilos of milk powder to the ghostly Mexican company and then resell it to the Venezuelan Government.   

The Santa Paula brand was imported by Salva Foods 2015, the Venezuelan company that owns the "CLAP Stores" franchise that do business in the premises of the extinct state network known as Abastos Bicentenario. Behind this is the Colombian entrepreneur Carlos Rolando Lizcano Manrique, related to Alex Saab and Álvaro Pulido through Group Grand Limited, the Hong Kong-registered company that in 2017 signed at least two millionaire contracts with Maduro’s Government to provide food for the Claps.

Both the Santa Paula packages and the Importgenius records, a database specialized in international trade, reveal purchases of Salva Foods 2015 to Grupo Brandon. It is an incomprehensible operation for entrepreneurs of the Venezuelan food industry, since the owner of the CLAP Stores does not appear in any forex acquisition list to be able to import merchandise.

Neither Carlos Lizcano, nor the general manager of Salva Foods 2015, Betsy Desirée Mata Pereda, answered the interview requests for this report. Neither the national coordinator of the Clap, Freddy Bernal nor the office of the Ministry of Food offered any version.

Asasi Food FZC, registered in the United Arab Emirates and related to the business structure of the binomial of Alex Saab and Álvaro Pulido, also bought tons of milk powder to Grupo Brandon from late 2017 to early 2018. Asasi Food FZC is one of the companies used by Colombian entrepreneurs to replace Group Grand Limited, reported in August 2017 by as being directly related to Nicolás Maduro.

Mexican financial authorities have detected flows of hundreds of millions of dollars behind that plot: From Group Grand Limited to Mexican suppliers, and between these and Grupo Brandon and Asasi Food FZC. Apart from Mexico, this scheme is investigated by US, Colombian and Panamanian authorities.

No documents prove the selling price of powdered milk in 2018 were obtained, but in 2017, that was one of the products that increased the profits of the intermediaries. Group Grand Limited, for example, charged the Venezuelan government $ 4.75 per kilo in last year’s January, and in September, the price amounted to almost seven dollars per kilo. Other intermediaries, like M.I.R Importació I Exportació and Wellsford Trading Corp billed the kilo of powdered milk at nearly five dollars.

Statistics from the Mexican Department of Commerce indicate that from January to July 2018, almost 82 million kilos worth 70.3 million dollars were exported to Venezuela, i.e. $ 0.85 per kilo, a little more than the $ 0.5 per kilo reported in 2017. It is a sign that the business is on the rise and that intermediaries are still coming away with the lion’s share.

* This is a work researched and published simultaneously by Armando.info and the Excélsior of Mexico.

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