Loose milk — time for the state to be vigilant

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Across the globe, milk is considered to be an ideal and comprehensive source of nutrition, as it contains most of the primary constituents of a well-balanced diet. Properly packaged milk is enriched with various proteins, vitamins, and minerals and can be the source of most essential nutrients. This is often not the case with loose milk, which is frequently adulterated or tampered with. In fact, incorrectly produced or stored milk can actually prove injurious to one’s health, counter-acting all of the milk’s natural benefits.
Shockingly, the vast majority of Pakistanis — a whopping 90 to 95 percent — still prefer to use loose milk to packaged milk. Statistics show that despite the ‘White Revolution’, hardly 5 to 10 percent of Pakistanis consume packaged milk. Much of this comes down to years of tradition, where loose milk is bought from gawalas (loose milk sellers), which is then boiled before consumption. But does just boiling the loose milk make it any safer to drink?
Most Pakistanis remain oblivious to the myriad health hazards posed by loose milk. According to research conducted by the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), unpasteurised milk is 150 times more likely to cause food borne illnesses. The bacteria present in raw milk can be especially dangerous to people with weakened immune systems, older adults, pregnant women, and children.
The fact that the loose milk market in Pakistan is unregulated only exacerbates the issue. Given that it is near impossible to trace where the loose milk is coming from, quality control or checks become impossible. This makes adulteration within the loose milk market an endemic issue. It starts even before the collection process, at unregulated dairy farms where cows are injected with harmful hormones and drugs to increase productivity. The living conditions of livestock at such farms also add to the dangers; often the animals are not cleaned properly before milking, non-recommended utensils are used to store the milk, and the cows are milked with unhygienic hands. Various pathogens can be found in the feces and intestines of cows, such as Bacillus cereus, Listeria monocytogenes, Yersinia enterocolitica, Salmonella spp, Escherichia coli O157:H7 and Campylobacter jejuni. Due to such illicit milking procedures, these pathogens can enter the milk. These have the tendency to cause abdominal pain, fever, nausea, and diarrhoea. In severe cases, they may cause life-threatening diseases and paralysis.
The problem continues with the gawalas who frequently mix the loose milk with water and other chemicals to ‘increase’ its quantity. The dangers here are obvious: multiple studies have demonstrated the health risks such drugs and hormones injected into the cows can have on both the animals, as well as the humans consuming their milk. And chemicals mixed with the loose milk can have further detrimental effects upon human health. This is not even taking into account ‘regular’ spoilage due to heat or other environmental contaminants, such as germs and bacteria which may be present in the water being mixed in with the milk.
By comparison, the standards that govern packaged milk producers demand that these companies must conduct 22-23 screening tests at the point of collection. Moreover, the milk must be transported to plants in a timely and efficient manner — ensuring the milk is kept safe and bacteria free. All the milk produced by leading packaged milk brands in Pakistan is either UHT or pasteurised. UHT involves heating milk at a temperature of 135 degree Celsius for a few seconds and then cooling it down. This unique process ensures that all bacteria are killed, while the taste and nutrition of the milk preserved in their original form. As per US Food Development Authority (FDA), pasteurisation and UHT do not reduce milk’s nutritional value. Coupled with Aseptic Carton packaging, Ultra High Temperature (UHT) milk manages to not only maintain its nutritious qualities, but is also designed to withstand the severe summer heat without the need of refrigeration.
The problem of adulterated milk has thankfully not escaped the attention of the authorities. In the past, the Punjab Food Authority’s focus was mostly on the packaged milk industry, which allowed several fraudulent loose milk producers to flourish. Recently, however, the PFA has demonstrated great concern and initiative by cracking down on illicit milk producers, and is putting pressure on all milk producers to follow international standards. It is imperative that the PFA and similar governing bodies continue to take notice of illicit milk producers and force them to comply with international standards and practices.
Beside government bodies, the media must play an effective role in order to educate the consumers regarding the dangers of loose milk and it should communicate the benefits of packaged milk to masses.
Despite being the third largest milk producer in the world, Pakistan’s dairy potential remains untapped, as the sector mostly operates in informal economy and demands a consistent effort to be formalised. Approximately 95 percent of dairy farmers have no access to the formal markets and most of them implement inefficient farming practices. As a result many dairy farmers suffer lower profits due to poor breeding of animals, a lack of knowledge, combined with poor connectivity from village to town centres by modern transport systems. Further, because of low income, numerous farmers are unable to provide nutritious fodder and modern management skills. This leads to animals producing less milk which ultimately affects the whole dairy industry. This means that national breed awareness programs and infrastructure developments, including road networks and cold chain networks, are required to facilitate access to market for these farmers. Such reforms will allow the local dairy industry to be more competitive and thus attract more investments in this particular sector, helping usher in a true ‘White Revolution’.