Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 3
12 October 1998

C S A R D A S:
Milk and Human Kindness

Gusztav Kosztolanyi

Surplus milk production in Hungary this year is estimated to be at around 200 million litres. A drop in national consumption, a levelling off of world market prices and increased producer yields have led to the paradoxical situation so familiar to farmers in existing EU member states. State intervention was called for to prevent a total collapse of the market: the guide price set by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, headed by Jozsef Torgyan, increased substantially as of the first of September. Producers have already warned that if the crisis cannot be averted, they will quite literally begin pouring milk down the drain.

Against this backdrop, Torgyan announced a new initiative to help schoolchildren, the elderly and the needy by setting up a milk distribution programme similar to previous programmes that foundered due to lack of private sector sponsorship.

The programme will be launched in the provinces, in the primary schools of Szabolcs-Szatmar-Bereg County. If every child at primary school were to receive two decilitres of milk a day, this would amount to some 40 million litres, in other words, it does not represent a panacea in terms of reducing the surplus.

Various objections have been raised to the plan, primarily on the part of milk processors who are being left out in the cold. Rumours have it that the milk would be distributed in churns and served to the children after boiling, in other words, with no guarantee of having been properly pasteurised. Experts have drawn attention to the lack of detail concerning the arrangements on transporting and packaging, coupling health and hygiene concerns with more abstract aesthetic considerations. (To anyone who has ever browsed through the freezer section of a Hungarian supermarket, this might seem somewhat superfluous, since milk is most commonly sold - in contrast to the resealable, compact cartons that dominate in the EU - in what can best be described as bloodbags, treacherous to pick up whilst chilled and whose contents have to be stored elsewhere upon opening.)

There are wider implications to the plan that go beyond the purely pragmatic wish to reduce the chronic surplus. The State can be seen to be acting as a benefactor, to show a compassionate and human face, helping the weakest and most disadvantaged of its citizens. This is fully in keeping with Viktor Orban's declared aim of establishing a more inclusive style of government that does not ignore or neglect the interests and opinions of all Hungarians, that does more than merely pander to the whims of a tiny elite.

Nor is the government oblivious to the long-term prospects of improving the nation's health by encouraging milk consumption. According to one spokesman, millions could be saved in the future by preventing the spread of osteoporosis. Boosting the calcium intake at an early age is in the interests of society as a whole and, as such, does not belong exclusively to the private sphere.

Come what may, the programme will not tarnish the government's image, provided it does not botch the details of implementation. In an opinion poll published back in August when the programme was announced, Torgyan's popularity rating went up by 5 points, putting him at 15th place in the league table. Perhaps here too, we have tangible evidence of the value of the milk of human kindness.

Gusztav Kosztolanyi, 12 October 1998


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