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Baby Food Scare Breeds Fear, Suspicion Among Israelis

JERUSALEM — Israelis often suppose that their long history of warfare, capped by three years of bloody intifada, have all but immunized them against life’s more mundane fears and anxieties. But nothing could have prepared them for the sheer terror raised this week by the specter of tainted baby food.

That terror swept the Jewish state this week, following reports that a soy-based baby formula, sold by the respected Remedia company, had caused the deaths of at least two infants and may have maimed others for life. The news induced hysteria among hundreds of thousands of worried parents and sent shock waves throughout the broader public. “If baby food isn’t safe any more in this country,” concerned mother Michal Nakash-Guvrin wrote in a letter to the daily Ma’ariv, “then nothing is safe.”

The emerging scandal put everything else in its shadow, eclipsing all the usual life-and-death security issues. Even the furiously debated prisoner-exchange agreement with Hezbollah was shoved to the back pages of newspapers and the tail ends of the nightly news shows. The possibility that parents had unwittingly poisoned their babies struck a raw and primordial nerve.

The public’s frustration was compounded by the ugly blame game that promptly erupted between the Health Ministry, the Remedia company and the German conglomerate Humana Milchunion, which manufactures Remedia’s soy-based formula. The Israeli police quickly launched an all-points probe of all concerned parties on suspicion of “causing death by negligence.” Even the Mossad and Shin Bet security service were called in, to examine widespread rumors that the formula had been sabotaged by terrorists.

Remedia’s soy-based “Super Formula” had been selling in supermarkets and pharmacies for well over half a year. It was only last week, however, when several babies were hospitalized simultaneously with similar disorders in their nervous systems, that health authorities woke up to the possibility of a systematic syndrome. Agitated parents in hospital waiting rooms quickly discovered their common denominator — they were all feeding their babies Remedia formula — and a public outcry broke out.

Emergency laboratory tests quickly revealed that Remedia’s soy-based milk-substitute was completely devoid of vitamin B-1, contradicting the statement of ingredients stamped on the formula’s aluminum canister. Severe deficiency of B-1, also known as thiamine, had caused the soy-fed babies to develop a form of beriberi disease, or a separate condition known as the Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, with potentially life-threatening damage to their nervous, gastrointestinal and cardiovascular systems.

The medical heroine to emerge from the affair was a young neurologist at Schneider Children’s Hospital in Petah Tikva, Dr. Aviv Fatal. Acting on a hunch, Fatal discovered that an injection of Vitamin B-1 cured the still-undiagnosed condition of a baby hospitalized with a critical nervous system disorder. It took several weeks, however, for health authorities to discover that the injection was a potential cure for all the stricken infants, but by that time two babies had died, and at least 10 others were hospitalized with potentially irreversible damage.

Only 5,000 Israeli babies are estimated to have been fed with the specific Remedia soy-based formula. Among them were relatively rare cases of lactose-allergic babies and a far greater number of ultra-Orthodox babies who were fed the milk-substitute for dietary reasons pertaining to Jewish dietary laws. But news of the outbreak of the mysterious illness terrified hundreds of thousands of Israeli parents who feed their babies regularly with other types of formulas, including milk-based foods. All Remedia products were ordered off the shelves at stores and pharmacies. Doctors predicted a mass return to the traditional, medically preferred method of breast-feeding.

The panic spread from the public to the parties involved, who quickly entangled themselves in a flurry of false or misleading statements, some of which were promptly exposed as negligent or even intentionally deceitful. The Health Ministry’s Food and Nutrition Administration claimed it had conducted regular laboratory tests on all Remedia products, until it was discovered that none had been carried out on the specific formula in question. Remedia, most of whose shares are owned by the Pittsburgh-based Heinz Corporation, claimed its supplier, Humana, had changed the makeup of the soy-based formula on its own accord, until it was found that Remedia itself had requested the modifications. As for Humana, it initially stated that its tests unequivocally proved the controversial formula had sufficient quantities of Vitamin B-1, only to confess a day later that further examination had revealed that the formula was indeed dangerously deficient in the vital thiamine.

The fact that a German company was involved only highlighted the emotional nature of the affair, especially after Remedia’s Israeli director general, Gidi Landsberger, was surreptitiously recorded on television telling Health Ministry officials of “rumors” that “someone” at Humana “had something against the State of Israel.” The public rumor mill was immediately rife with allegations that latter-day Germans were continuing the work of their Nazi forebears and killing Jewish babies, or that German antisemites were collaborating with Arab terrorists in a biological terrorist attack against the Israeli population.

On Wednesday, prosecutors in Germany opened an investigation of the head of product development at Humana, on suspicion of negligent homicide.

Suspicions in Israel resonated even more strongly against the backdrop of a recently released Europe-wide poll that found that Europeans consider Israel to be the greatest “danger to world stability,” ahead of rogue states such as Iran, Iraq and North Korea. For conspiracy theorists, of which Israel has its fair share, the connection between the poll and the German angle of the Remedia affair was more than obvious, proof that a virulent and potentially lethal form of antisemitism had emerged on the European continent.

Even for those who took a more rational view, the Remedia affair took on ominous undertones, seemingly pointing the way for would-be terrorists of the future. Top Defense Ministry officials told the Forward, in off-the-record conversations, that the incident could give terrorists “dangerous new ideas.” Worse, they said, the scandal proved it was not necessary to infect foods with outright poisons: The mere withholding of a trace element, such as a vitamin, could wreak havoc on an unsuspecting population.

For most Israelis, however, the Remedia scandal mostly seemed to deepen a mounting sense of Israel’s defenselessness against outside dangers on the one hand and of the government’s negligence and incompetence on the other. The Remedia affair seemed certain to follow on the footsteps of previous tragedies brought on by gross negligence by the authorities, including the 1997 collapse of the bridge over the Yarkon River, in which four Australian participants in the Maccabiah games were killed, and the tragic 2001 collapse of a Jerusalem wedding hall, in which 23 people were killed. In all these cases, the authorities charged with ensuring public safety were found afterward to have been incompetent, negligent and in some cases criminally indifferent to the public’s fate.

Already, initial findings in the Remedia case are said by State Attorney Miriam Arbel to include prima facie evidence of gross negligence that may form the basis for criminal charges of manslaughter. Police investigators raided the offices of both Remedia and the Food and Nutrition Administration. A separate criminal inquiry has been opened by Israeli police officials in coordination with German authorities into the actions and possible motives of the Humana company, which has admitted its actions contributed to the tragedy.

Victims’ families were also quick to file class-action suits against Remedia in Israeli courts, threatening the eventual collapse of the company, which had captured more than a third of the $500 million-a-year local baby formula market. The criminal and civil proceedings are likely to drag out for years, ensuring continued public and media interest in the affair.

But beyond the affair’s immediate, tragic victims, the Remedia case only deepened the growing sense of gloom so widespread among Israelis these days. Israel’s red lines have been crossed with alarming frequency lately. Nothing, though, is more sacred than feeding babies. The crossing of that line seemed to leave nothing but despair, and foreboding.

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