Chan Phalkun is like many other ordinary women in Cambodia in that she wants a happy and healthy family. At the age of 28, she started a family in 2018 by marrying an NGO worker.
In late June 2019, they had a son, who they nicknamed Harry. He was a kind and tough child who rarely got sick. However, when he was over five-months-old, in December 2019, he was diagnosed with severe iron deficiency anemia.
Harry's parents took him to the doctor, who informed them that the milk powder Harry had been fed was the cause of his problems.
Harry's parents were shocked and outraged.
“I do appreciate all the doctors who are showing up the side effects of milk powder in order to protect my son and other children, even if they were threatened,” Phalkun said.
Phalkun is one of 21 families who are suing milk powder company, Nutrilatt Master LM Co., Ltd, in a civil suit. The case is currently in the Appeal Court, where the defendants have never appeared at any proceedings.
The company lost the case and was ordered to pay compensation to the 21 families, but the decision of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court was appealed. Each family had demanded a different amount of compensation from the company, of between $100,000 to $200,000.
The General Department of Consumer Protection, Competition and Fraud Repression at the Ministry of Commerce banned the Nutrilatt powdered milk formula in 2020 after it was found to lack the proper iron content, according to the Phnom Penh Post.
Representatives of Nutrilatt Nutrilatt Master LM CoLtd were not available for comment for this story.
The Khmer Times reported last year that the importer, Khon Keokesey, was sentenced to 10 months in prison for selling poor quality milk. Keokesey was also fined eight million riels by the court, according to the Khmer Times.
It was not clear if Keokesey ever served the sentence. In one of the trials, she said that she had been importing the milk product for 10 years with no problem, according to the Khmer Times.
According to the media outlet, she told the court that her imported shipment was transported to her company warehouse in Phnom Penh and inspected by the CAMCONTROL officials.
Phalkun said that she has not received any solution from the court, and that she will try another way. She has been tolerant of using legal means for the past few years, but if there has been no improvement in law enforcement, she will continue to complain directly to Prime Minister Hun Sen to ask for intervention.
“I have been patient a lot since I started to sue for my baby problem in court because it happened around three and four years ago. It wastes my time, so I have to find another strategy that doesn't waste time and gives no result.
“So, the next plan, we will ultimately decide to file a complaint to Samdech Hun Sen to expedite this case, because in the past, no matter how small or big things that were the people's food, he always participated,” Phalkun said.
Beside challenging in court, the 28-year-old mom was threatened with being forced to choose between her children and the workplace while she was actively demonstrating a lawsuit in October 2021, by perceiving her involvement as a move that impacted the institution.
“What I desire is to continue to find a solution for my baby. You know, I work for an international humanitarian organization, but I was forced to choose between my children and work, so I decided to quit my job and chose to take care of my son. I already know the result, but if I did, I would take it seriously,” Phalkun added.
She expressed concern over parents who have less education and little knowledge in choosing milk powder, which can be harmful to their children. This mother is still concerned about other children who have symptoms of Bell's palsy, because the brain is weak and cannot get enough iron, which can also affect the cycles of girls' menstrual periods in the future.
Meanwhile, the effects of choosing the erroneous milk powder can lead to a child's cognitive and mental development being slower than other children.
A lesson learnt
After this case, Phalkun has learned to take into account many things, such as messages on social media, consulting with experts for advice about baby growth, and what she has read and researched. She started to follow less what other parents shared because the development of children is different.
Later on, Phalkun had a second child, whom she breastfed. She recognized that her second child was growing up so fast. Furthermore, she focused on nutrition and chose qualified people to stay and take care of her child. She seemed to have lost trust in superstar-endorsed milk powder advertisements because she thought that they typically only spread what they wanted to spread and benefit themselves.
“As my recommendation, I think that when parents start to have children, they must have a clear plan and knowledge and also verify more information. And they should plan at least 10 steps beforehand. Remember, if you have a baby, you must have responsibility; don't just create a life and respond to little things,” Phalkun said, expressing her perspective.
Phakun suggested that all parents be well-prepared and take on a high level of responsibility before starting a family. This includes having sufficient resources, such as financial, parental health, intellectual, and parenting resources, in order to take good care of a child.
She added that people cannot compare their child to the old generation, “I can take care of a child around 10 or more than that, and it is not hard for just a few babies. Make sure our babies grow up in the right generation and context.”
The mother-of-two is urging all parents to try to breastfeed as much as possible, because there is no milk powder product superior to a mother's breast milk.
Relevant ministries and competent organizations should prioritize a plan for breastfeeding, which requires public awareness. During this time, the Ministry of Health should strictly monitor efforts to enhance comprehension and encourage mothers about the necessity of breastfeeding, nursing, and obtaining milk.
Phalkun first learned about the milk powder from commercials that identified it as a Singaporean product and featured local celebrities. However, the milk powder was actually made in a factory in Malaysia and only registered in Singapore. To this day, Phalkun wonders why she was cheated by the company, even though she has some education.
"How about those who live in rural areas and factory workers? How do they deal?”
Phalkun said that celebrities are aware of the problems with the product, but they continue to endorse it and promote it to the public.
“In this case, I felt that brand ambassadors had no willingness to commit themselves to spreading a positive message. I know there is no law to make them go to jail, but they should take it as a professional skill and seek to advertise the good product," she said.
Phalkun was thankful for Helen Keller International and while the state does not have the capacity to support her, at that time, civil society organizations have made a significant contribution to the search for transparent evidence in this case.
“If without the contribution of the organization, what will we have to accuse them of until there is a scientific argument that it does not contain iron, while our state does not have the capacity to support it? Thus the organization has spent around $10,000 to check for iron deficiencies on 20 cans of milk powder,” Phalkun said.
Hou Krein, Deputy Director of Helen Keller International in Cambodia, told Kiripost that the organization cooperated with the Ministry of Commerce to send samples to Singapore's laboratory as the result of the analysis revealed serious problems.
Currently, we are partnering with the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Commerce, and other relevant ministries to strengthen the implementation of Sub-Decree 133 on the Marketing of Baby Products and Nutrition for Children. The partnership will focus on labeling that promotes nutrition in infant and child feeding.
“So far, we have seen the rate of exclusive breastfeeding decrease from zero to six months. From 2014, we had 65 percent, but now we have only 50 percent, which is a decrease for us. Together, we can help restrict milk powder advertising to a large extent,” he said.
Through cooperation with other relevant ministries, the Helen Keller organization has developed many strategies, including educational videos, to increase awareness among parents about the importance of breast milk, nutrition, and breastfeeding babies in Cambodia.
So far, there has been a misconception that the quality of milk powder is better than breast milk, which is not supported by scientific studies.