Health Ministry defends staffers prosecuted in Remedia case

Ministry spokeswoman expresses hope that their "innocence would be proven without doubt.

remedia 224.88 (photo credit: Channel 2)
remedia 224.88
(photo credit: Channel 2)
After the State Attorney's Office said that it would prosecute five Health Ministry workers - the former head of its Food Service Division and four inspectors - for their role the Remedia scandal that led to the deaths of three children and harm to 20 more who ate the company's unfit formula the ministry gave them its "full backing and praised their "professionalism" and work "according to instructions." Remedia company officials were also be prosecuted on Tuesday. Four-and-a-half years ago, Remedia imported soy-based mother's milk substitute that lacked vitamin B1 (thiamine), a vital component whose absence caused developmental damage and even death in babies whose diet was solely that formula. The German manufacturer, Humana, admitted in the midst of the scandal that it was wrong to have left the vitamin out of the batch of formula that was manufactured for and sent only to Israel because of kashrut considerations. Dr. Dorit Nitzan-Kaluski, an experienced pediatrician who was head of the ministry's Food Service Division at the time and who since the scandal went to work for the World Health Organization in Eastern Europe, will be tried along with Ashdod and Haifa Ports inspectors working for the ministry. Ministry spokeswoman Einav Shimon-Greenboim said in a statement Monday night that it was sorry about the decision to prosecute ministry officials and expressed hope that their "innocence would be proven without doubt. The spokeswoman said the ministry was among the first (after nurses and doctors in hospitals who received the infants) to suspect that the cause of the babies' hospitalization was the lack of the vitamin. Ministry officials asked the State Attorney and called for an investigation of Remedia. She said the ministry "continues to follow up the health" of the surviving children. The ministry expressed its fear that the State Attorney's step "is liable to have serious implications on the ministry's regulation and supervision processes." After the eruption of the scandal, then health minister Dan Naveh decided that baby food would be treated with a higher level of supervision like that for pharmaceuticals. Nitzan-Kaluski said through a public relations adviser she hired to speak for her that "the great pain of the affected families remains with me all the time, since September 6, 2003. Every night I see the faces of the babies and the thousands of babies exposed to disease. As a mother and grandmother, a pediatrician specializing in gastroenterology and child nutrition with years of experience in Israel and the world, my sorrow is great and even more stinging." On that day in 2003, she spoke to the parents of all the affected babies fed solely on the non-dairy Remedia formula and asked company director Gidi Lansberger if the components of the formula had changed. "He claimed the only change was in the amount of fat," Nitzan-Kaluski recalled. But she reached the conclusion that the symptoms were those of beri-beri, a disease of malnutrition in the Third World. Within 24 hours, the Food Service Division chief ordered Remedia's soy formula powder removed from store shelves. After affected babies improved when given thiamine, the ministry quickly informed the public -- especially haredim who prefer non-dairy baby formula so it wouldn't "clash" with meat meals -- that they must stop using it immediately. Nitzan-Kaluski maintained that even though the ministry had given approval for the formula's import, Remedia had not informed her that the ingredients had been changed, "turning it into another product. It is impossible," she concluded, "to examine thousands of products for all its constituents." Parents of the Remedia children -- who received significant financial compensation from the manufacturer and importer -- welcomed the decision to prosecute and said the case had been delayed long enough.