This milk of human unkindness
When it comes to milk, we have both a good and a really bad track record in our country. India ranks number One in the world for milk production. It contributes about 18 per cent of the world’s milk production. Milk production is to the tune of about 146 million tonnes in the country. Of course, this is a huge quantity.
But there is also something to ponder about. It is feared that over 60 per cent of the milk is contaminated due to malpractices in the milk supply chain which includes dilution with unsafe water and mixing of hazardous chemicals. Milk is adulterated with contaminants such as urea, various kinds of salt, detergent, liquid soap, boric acid, caustic soda and hydrogen peroxide which have hazardous health effects. These are the claims and candid admissions of the government of India.
India being one of the largest milk producers in the world, this is a matter of serious concern. It has to be tackled sooner rather than later, as it is causing serious health problems to the people of the country. The immediate effect of drinking adulterated milk containing urea, caustic soda and formalin is gastroenteritis, but the long-term effects are far more serious and include liver and kidney failure and cancer.
Let’s understand what is adulteration. As per Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), milk adulteration is the “act of deliberately reducing the quality of milk offered for sale to the consumers for profit.” And yes, adulteration can take place during the harvest, growth, storage, transport and finally at the distribution stage.
FSSAI recently conducted a survey in 33 states and union territories and found that 68.4 per cent of 1,791 milk samples were contaminated. In urban India, nearly 70 per cent of samples were found to be contaminated, compared with 31 per cent in rural areas. The survey said that only two states – Goa and Puducherry – sold unadulterated milk or at least samples taken from these two states were not contaminated.
At the other end were West Bengal, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa and Mizoram, where not a single sample that was tested met FSSAI norms. Other prominent states fared just a shade better. Around 89 per cent of the samples tested from Gujarat, 83 per cent from Jammu & Kashmir, 81 per cent from Punjab, 76 per cent from Rajasthan, 70 per cent from Delhi and Haryana and 65 per cent from Maharashtra failed the test.
Around half the samples from Madhya Pradesh (48 per cent) met a similar fate. States with comparatively better results included Kerala where 28 per cent of samples did not conform to FSSAI standards, Karnataka (22 per cent), Tamil Nadu (12 per cent) and Andhra Pradesh (6.7 per cent).
Keeping these grim facts in mind, what is the big deal if we are the world’s largest producer of milk, thanks to the white revolution. For a layman to differentiate between contaminated and pure milk is a tall order and only specific chemical tests can reveal the truth. As mentioned earlier, water is the most common adulterant in milk. It reduces the nutritional value of milk but if the water used for adulteration is not safe, it is going to make our citizen permanently ill.
This only confirms that food adulteration is common in India. Even milk, consumed primarily by children, isn’t spared. It is shocking to say the least. What’s particularly worrying is the kind of substances used to adulterate, including toxic chemicals. This shows that the tradeoff between the risk of getting caught and the reward of huge profits is skewed heavily in favour of the latter. The government must focus on raising the risks to the adulterator. One way of doing this is by hiking the penalty, including making it analogous to attempt to murder in extreme cases. It’s equally important to regularly check foodstuff for adulteration and ensure speedy trials.
When people die due to tainted milk, counterfeit products or negligently compounded drugs, we need to recognize this as cold blooded murder or at least abetment to murder. In recent years, China has gained worldwide appreciation for its particularly strong stance against individuals who intentionally and willfully violated its food and drug laws for personal profits. China executes those who are found to be involved in tainting milk. While we may not be able to follow China, those involved in adulterating milk surely merit long jail sentences.
As the situation is rather serious, the government in power seems to be working overtime to address the issue. In this backdrop, Dr. Harsh Vardhan, Minister for Science & Technology and Earth Sciences has recently dedicated Systems for Detection of Adulteration and Analysis of Milk. It is developed by Central Electronics Engineering Research Institute (CSIR-CEERI), Pilani. This technology is expected to tackle a national level health hazard due to adulteration in milk.
Dr Harsh Vardhan said that he will soon be reaching out to the Union Health Minister and the Health Ministers of all state governments to adopt and deploy this technology platform to address the problem of milk adulteration in the country. FSSAI will also be asked to bring in the required regulatory intervention so as to ensure the delivery of quality milk.
I feel that CSIR has done yeoman service in developing a technology solution, in the form of a milk analysis machine ‘Ksheer-Scanner’, which instantaneously detects adulterants in milk. It is a low-cost portable system with user-friendly features. It enables detection of contaminants in just 40-45 seconds at a per sample cost of less than 50 paise. A top official of CSIR was recently telling me that among the many benefits of ‘Ksheer Scanner is that the system offers automated scanning of raw milk samples at milk collection points. It is safe to use and ideal for installation at milk collection centers at village and tehsil levels. The system can also be useful for on-the-spot milk testing by food inspectors and by users and packers of the milk. The system has been successfully tested at various dairies located in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana.
One only hopes that that this technology would go a long way towards breaking the back of all those who are playing with the lives of people. Additionally GPS-based technology can be used to track the exact location in the supply chain where the milk was tampered with.
At the end of the day, one thing is clear. India needs to wake up to the seriousness of tainted milk. Otherwise, our daily glass of good health could actually be doing us more harm than good.
The writer is a BJP Member of the Rajya Sabha.