Just in time for Halloween, several candy companies - including Cadbury, Mars and Nestle - have been caught up in China's tainted-milk scandal. Candies made by the companies' subsidiaries in Asia were found to contain melamine and were recalled, although the companies claim that the levels were too low to pose a health risk. Milk and baby formula contaminated with melamine are believed to have killed four children in China and sickened tens of thousands more.
Only one brand of recalled candy is sold in the U.S., but does that mean that milk chocolate and other candies made with milk are safe? Not by a long shot. As a mom, I wouldn't dream of giving my young son products containing cow's milk.
Milk in the U.S. might not be tainted with melamine, but it is loaded with other unsavory substances. Most cows on U.S. dairy farms are injected with growth hormones, which are passed along to the people who consume their milk. Growth hormones are intended to boost cows' milk production, which is already far higher than it naturally would be, thanks to selective breeding and genetic manipulation.
But all that extra milk causes cows' udders to become swollen and inflamed. So cows are routinely given antibiotics in an effort to combat mastitis and other infections that run rampant on dairy farms. Like hormones, those antibiotics can be passed on to milk drinkers, along with the pus that results from the infections. In fact, knowing how common infections in dairy cows are, the government actually allows up to 200 million pus cells (euphemistically called "somatic cells") in every liter of milk. Eww! Now that's as scary as any ghost story.
Even if it were contaminant-free, cow's milk would still have problems. It is linked to many common childhood ailments, including allergies, ear infections, recurrent bronchitis, juvenile diabetes and asthma. Studies have also linked dairy products to health problems that plague adults, including heart disease, obesity, cancer and even osteoporosis.
Experts are moving away from recommending cow's milk for kids. The American Academy of Pediatrics says it shouldn't be given to children under a year old. Dr. Frank Oski, the former director of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University, thinks that no one of any age should drink it: "There's no reason to drink cow's milk at any time in your life. It was designed for calves, it was not designed for humans, and we should all stop drinking it today, this afternoon."
In Baby and Child Care, the late pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock wrote, "I no longer recommend dairy products . . . The essential fats that are needed for brain development are found in vegetable oils. Milk is very low in these essential fats and high in the saturated fats that encourage artery blockage and weight problems as children grow."
So when you head out to do your last-minute Halloween candy shopping, leave the Milky Ways and Snickers on the shelf. Let the kids enjoy healthy snacks like raisins, fruit roll-ups, mixed nuts and dairy-free dark chocolate - which is rich in antioxidants but just might get nabbed by Mom.
Tracy Reiman is the executive vice president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in Norfolk, Va.