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What’s driving the multi-million dollar black market in infant formula milk?

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black market in infant formula milk

Given the choice, the vast majority of new parents in China will opt to give their babies infant formula milk made outside of their country. In fact, data from research firm Euromonitor last year showed that eight out of the top 10 baby formula brands sold in China were made by foreign companies. While the ongoing popularity of baby milk products made overseas among Chinese consumers is partly the result of Beijing removing hundreds domestic brands from sale early last year, many new parents remain sceptical as to the safety of locally-made alternatives in the wake of a baby powder scandal over a decade ago in which contaminated formula caused the deaths of six infants and poisoned as many as 300,000.

It was later discovered that the products in question contained hazardous amounts of the toxic industrial chemical melamine, which is used routinely in the production of glue, laminates and fire retardants. Tests carried out on infant formula linked to the poisonings showed that it contained 500 times the maximum permitted level of melamine, raising serious questions about the regulation of and checks on domestic baby powder producers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this left Chinese parents keen to avoid locally-made formula milk that they assumed did not have to go through the types of rigorous safety checks products made elsewhere have to undergo.

Concerns have also been raised elsewhere in Asia about the safety of infant formula milk supply chains. At the end of 2017, Malaysian police seized hundreds of boxes of suspected counterfeit infant milk formula that investigators said had been produced and sold on an industrial scale by organised criminals. Local government officials and infant formula manufacturers were said to have suspected for months that counterfeit milk that could have posed a threat to the health and safety of babies may have been on sale in a number of retail outlets in the state of Johor, but failed to take any real action until news of the police raids was reported by both local and international media.

These and similar food safety and pollution scares across the region are a major driver of the popularity of mostly Western brands of baby formula among new parents, who are driving a demand that is increasingly feeding a growing black market in smuggled infant milk. The appetite for infant formula made in the West is now so high among consumers in countries such as China that organised criminal gangs operating at various levels of sophistication have for some time been conspiring to ship the product illegally out of countries including Australia, the US and Britain.

Only last week, Australian investigators broke up a family-run gang that prosecutors in the country accuse of stealing infant formula milk from shops and supermarkets before shipping it illegally to China. While police said they had collected evidence that suggested the syndicate had trafficked stolen formula milk estimated to be worth some A$1 million (£718.000) over the course of the past 12 months alone, they said it is likely that the gang had been active for a number of years. A probe that led to the discovery of the group’s activities was launched in February 2018 when police noticed that retailers across Sydney were reporting an unusually high number of baby formula milk thefts. In April 2017, Chinese customs officials announced that they had disrupted a sophisticated operation run by “highly-educated intellectuals” that involved baby milk and other health supplements worth hundreds of millions of dollars being smuggled illegally from the US to China.

The seemingly insatiable demand for Western-manufactured baby formula in China has also resulted in less sophisticated smuggling attempts that have caused shortages of infant milk in both the UK and Australia. Back in April 2013, British retailers were forced to ration sales of infant formula over fears that consumers were bulk buying it from supermarkets before shipping it overseas. In a statement issued at the time, French food giant Danone, which is a major manufacturer of infant formula, said: “We understand that the increased demand is being fuelled by unofficial exports to China to satisfy the needs of parents who want Western brands for their babies.”

One businessman told Sky News that he was exporting baby milk worth £5,000 ($6,582) from the UK to China that he bought from British supermarkets every week, and was doubling his money every time he did so.  A similar situation arose in Australia last year, suggesting that the black market in what most would assume to be a run-of-the-mill everyday product is continuing to thrive, in spite of the fact that China’s baby milk poisoning scandal took place more than a decade ago.

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Daesh could emerge in a deadlier form after the fall of its so-called caliphate

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Daesh could emerge in a deadlier form

Nearly five years after Daesh appeared to be at the peak of its powers, controlling huge swathes of Syria and Iraq under its so-called Islamic caliphate, the jihadi group is finally facing defeat in the region. US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) spokespeople have said it is now only a matter of days until the last few hundred hardened Daesh fighters holed up in the Syrian village of Baghouz close to the country’s border with Iraq are “annihilated”. As the clock runs down for these Islamists, the days of gruesome Hollywood-style execution videos and dreams of a final battle against “Crusader” armies in the Syrian town of Dabiq must seem a very long time ago indeed.

While the cleansing of Daesh fighters from the region is obviously good news for the people of both Iraq and Syria who were forced to live under the group’s brutal rule, and will likely be used by US President Donald Trump as an example of how effective his approach to its physical presence in the Middle East has been, the fall of the caliphate will do little to diminish the threat the terrorist organisation poses, nor slow the spread of the ideology that underpins its existence.

Despite the fact that its income has dropped radically as the territory it controls has shrunk, the UN estimates that Daesh is sitting on a war chest of some $300 million that it can use to fund attacks on Western targets once it has regrouped from its losses. Some of this money is said to have been smuggled out of the group’s caliphate to be invested in legitimate businesses. The UN also notes that as a result of its loss of land, Daesh now has fewer liabilities, and will consequently be able to use more of its money to fund operations.

As well as retaining considerable financial muscle, the group also continues to pose a significant threat online. One of the most remarkable aspects of the rise of Daesh’s caliphate was the skill with which the group was able to use technology to spread its propaganda and attract recruits. Speaking with CNBC last November, EU Security Commissioner Julian King said the group remains a major online threat, and is continuing to produce and distribute terrorist content across the internet. This is significant, King said, because Daesh-inspired terrorist attacks that have taken place across Europe and elsewhere over recent years have been carried out predominantly by home-grown extremists, many of whom would have been at least partly radicalised online.

It is also important to remember that as the terror group’s caliphate has crumbled, foreign fighters who left their countries of origin to join its ranks have returned home, many taking with them skills learned on the battlefield, and in some cases and even greater hatred of the West than they harboured before they pledged their allegiance to the organisation. While there has been much debate about the fate of high-profile Daesh foreign fighters who have been captured by Syrian and Kurdish security forces, such as Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, the reality is that nobody knows how many of the group’s militants have sneaked back into their home nations.

In some cases, concerns have been raised that countries such as Britain might not be able to successfully prosecute jihadi fighters who do travel home under current laws. This has raised worries that in a limited number of instances extremists who have committed the most heinous and brutal of crimes, and who may consider mounting terrorist attacks in the future, could end up freely walking the streets.

Elsewhere, the group has been building its presence in a number of countries that are experiencing their own security issues, and forging alliances with other jihadi organisations that share its worldview. In Nigeria, Boko Haram pledged allegiance to Daesh in 2015, leading to the breakaway of a splinter group named Islamic State West Africa Province the following year. Similarly, senior members of jihadi Philippines group Abu Sayyaf have repeatedly sworn oaths of allegiance to Daesh, which the latter group officially recognised in 2016. Meanwhile, militants from Daesh who have fled the group’s caliphate are said to have been regrouping in countries such as Afghanistan and Yemen, prompting fears that the organisation could use these countries as bases from which to launch fresh atrocities.

While the imminent end to Daesh’s presence in Iraq and Syria should of course be celebrated, it must not be allowed to lull the group’s enemies into a false sense of security. Daesh, like jihadi terrorism more generally, shows no sign of declining any time soon, making it a very real possibility that the extremist organisation could remerge in the not too distant future in an even more deadly form.

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Cutting traditional drugs with dangerous new synthetics is a profitable business model: Expect to see more of it

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cutting traditional drugs with dangerous new synthetics

At the end of last month, a study published by the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence revealed that just under 1% of US teenagers are knowingly consuming the synthetic cathinone flakka, a powerful stimulant that has been said to cause users to strip naked in public, convulse violently in the street and attempt to “have sex with trees”. Researchers at NYU Langone said the true number of young adult Americans who are routinely taking the drug could in fact be much higher, and that many might be consuming it without their knowledge, primarily on account of the fact that it is now commonly being added by dealers to more traditional illicit substances such as ecstasy and cocaine. Flakka, or alpha-Pyrrolidinopentiophenone, is part of a group of new psychoactive substances that has risen in popularity across the western world over recent years, along with “bath salts”, or Methylenedioxypyrovalerone, which is said to have driven one user to eat the face of a homeless man in Miami back in 2012.

As potent as methamphetamine, flakka is routinely referred to as being similar to cocaine, but is in fact potentially far more dangerous. Unlike cocaine, a small misjudgement of dose can result in episodes of extreme delirium or even death. Consumption of the drug, which is incredibly cheap to manufacture, can also trigger long-term psychosis in users. After initially attracting drug users across the socio-economic divide, flakka, and new psychoactive substances more generally, have now become a preferred option for vulnerable sections of society such as the homeless and prisoners, with wealthier drug users preferring more expensive traditional drugs such as cocaine.

In the UK, the use of bath salts, or “monkey dust” as it referred to locally, is decimating homeless communities, with users describing it as being worse than heroin or crack. While it is of course alarming that young Americans are using flakka at all, albeit it in very small numbers knowingly, the NYU Langone study highlights a worrying growing trend for drug producers and dealers to add cheap and powerful synthetic substances to traditional narcotics such as ecstasy and cocaine.

While dealers have always sought to cut their drugs with whatever substances they can find that might help them squeeze more profit out of their products, the growing prevalence of traditional drugs being laced with powerful new synthetic chemicals is a phenomenon that has come to the fore over recent years, most notably in the US, where the country’s spiralling opioid crisis has seen drug manufacturers and street suppliers mix their heroin with fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid.

More recently, police in both America and Canada have discovered batches of cocaine that have been laced with fentanyl, which is produced in huge quantities in illicit drugs factories across China. This is a phenomenon that has also been found in the UK and elsewhere across Europe, despite the drug failing to have the same impact elsewhere as it has in the US. In spite of this, worries are rising in Britain and other countries about an increase in the number of drug overdose deaths linked to fentanyl, which is increasingly being found in traditional drugs outside of the US.

It is not difficult to understand why drug manufacturers and dealers appear to be becoming increasingly attracted to the idea of cutting the traditional drugs they sell with potent synthetic substances. Not only are chemicals such as fentanyl and flakka cheap to produce and easy to get hold of, but they are also incredibly powerful, meaning a small amount of either can go a very long way. Just 0.25 milligrams of the former can be enough to trigger an overdose in some users. This means drug makers and dealers need only add a small amount of these types of substances to heroin or ecstasy to radically boost their potency. With fentanyl, some users in the UK and America have become so accustomed to the high they are able to achieve when they take heroin laced with the synthetic opioid that the traditional form of the drug no longer provides a sufficient effect.

While it has always been the case that users of illicit drugs can never be truly sure of what is really in the substances they choose consume, the emerging trend of powerful new psychoactive chemicals being added to traditional drugs is something that should concern policymakers, health campaigners and users alike. The fact that more festivals and nightclubs are providing people with facilities that allow them to test what is really in their drugs might go some way to preventing users from consuming something that might do them serious harm, but with the profits to be made by passing off unpredictable synthetics as traditional drugs being so high, it will likely now become ever more the case that users will need to be prepared for unpleasant surprises.

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Deplorable criminal practices such as FGM must not be brushed under the carpet in the name of political correctness

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deplorable criminal practices such as FGM

Some 34 years after the barbarous practice was first outlawed in the UK, British prosecutors last week secured the conviction of the first person in the country to be successfully tried for carrying out female genital mutilation (FGM) on a child. More than a third of a decade after the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985 was passed into law, a 37-year-old mother from east London who cannot be named for legal reasons was found guilty at the Old Bailey of taking a sharp instrument to her three-year-old daughter’s genitals, most likely while the child was being held down by a number of other people, screaming out in unbearable agony.

The Ugandan woman, who took her daughter to hospital with appalling injuries to her genitals when the procedure went wrong, claiming she had fallen on the edge of a kitchen cupboard, taught her child to lie to investigators about the barbaric procedure she had been forced to endure. She then carried out a bizarre series of black magic rituals intended to bring misfortune on the police and social workers who had been assigned to work on her daughter’s case.

While any right-minded person would applaud the fact that this mother is now facing the prospect of up to 14 years behind bars, questions have to be asked as to why it has taken so long for anybody to be convicted of this heinous crime in the UK. Unfortunately, it is not for a want of victims. According to data collated by child protection charity the NSPCC, 137,000 women and girls living in England and Wales are victims of FGM. The charity notes that since July 2015, at least 205 Female Genital Mutilation Protection Orders have been issued to safeguard girls who might be at risk of being cut, suggesting the authorities are able to identify potential victims in some cases.

Sadly though, it appears that as with other illegal practices that are prevalent among some communities, such as certain forms of child grooming for the purposes of sexual exploitation and forced marriage, authorities seem to be unwilling to take serious action on FGM through fear of being labelled as “racist”. Unbelievably, West Midlands Police last year took to Twitter to tell its followers that parents who are responsible for FGM being carried out on their own children should not always be prosecuted. Imagine making a similar statement about parents who sexually assault their own kids.

It is often argued that FGM is a crime that is incredibly hard to police, owing to the fact that it is typically carried out by parents on their own young children, who in many cases would be unlikely to come forward to report what has happened to them. It was this week revealed by the BBC that parents are increasingly carrying out FGM on their children while they are babies in a bid to avoid the attention of authorities. While it is certainly true that this is a very difficult crime to investigate and prosecute, few would argue that police in Britain and other Western countries are doing enough to crack down on the practice, more often than not due to fear of accusations of racism.

Much more could be done to help potential victims of FGM if worries about political correctness and cultural relativism were put to one side. For instance, children who are born to women who have been cut themselves, or those from communities where the practice of FGM is more common, could be put on an at-risk register and closely monitored. More questions could be asked when children from certain backgrounds are taken out of school and sent “back home” to countries where genital cutting is carried out. Potential victims could be given more encouragement to reach out for help if they feel they are soon to be cut, much in the same way that other children are encouraged to come forward if they face familial or other forms of sexual abuse. Some might argue that this would involve a certain degree of profiling, but surely this would be a small price to pay if it were to result in a fall in the number of girls who are put through an excruciating experience that leaves them mutilated for life.

Those who believe that FGM, or other illegal practices that seem to be more common among certain communities, should be covered up for the sake of “diversity” must not be allowed to deny these children the protection and justice they deserve. We must hope that last week’s prosecution will serve as a turning point, but as with predominantly “Asian” child rape gangs and forced marriage, no real progress will be made on FGM until politicians, police, social workers and academics are willing to put aside politically-correct anxieties about being labelled as racist. Those who harbour these anxieties would rightly be appalled to hear of child abuse being carried out by white Christians. To turn a blind eye to similar crimes being committed in other communities betrays an almost institutionalised bigotry of low expectations.

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