Milking the situation

Milk is an essential part of a Pakistani diet. Pakistan is the fourth largest milk-producing country in the world (producing about 48 billion litres of milk each year). The livestock sector contributes 11.3 per cent to Pakistan’s GDP and provides employment to about 10 million farming families.

Traditionally, milk has been supplied by milk-men (Gawaalas) to families across the country. With increasing urbanisation, there has been a shift from ‘loose’ (Khulla) milk to ‘packaged’ milk in urban, more health-conscious households. Despite this change, only about 7% consumers use packaged milk and prefer the traditional way of acquiring milk.

Since the industrialisation during Ayub Khan’s reign (1958-1969), dairy industry has been trying to establish a foothold in Pakistan. Initially, the problem was establishing a ‘cold-chain’ process through which ‘pasteurised’ milk could be transported to packaging centres. ‘Pasteurisation’ is a technique to rid milk of harmful micro-organisms like bacteria through heating at a certain temperature for a certain time. With the advent of Ultra-heat temperature (UHT) processing and Tetra Brik technology, it was possible to ensure cold chain supply thereby facilitating distribution and storage.

While milk is a source of nutrition, contamination of milk can lead to diseases such as Salmonella infection or Brucellosis. Handling of milk from the animal to the consumer has to be done in a hygienic environment to ensure the quality of product. This precaution, however, is not adopted by milkmen in many cases due to a number of different reasons. On the other hand, packaged milk is collected, tested at the collection centre, stored in a chiller and then transported to the next stop in the supply chain. The two major milk companies in Pakistan-Nestle and Olpers-have thousands of Milk Collection Points in parts of Punjab and Sindh. I personally visited a Milk Collection point for Olpers in Arifwala followed by a visit to their Area offices and processing plant in Sahiwal. The hygiene and safety standards at the facilities were world-class. Contrary to popular myths, packaged milk is not produced by machines but is collected from actual, human farmers in different parts of the country. One could argue about the economics of this enterprise and how it pushes the small famer out of the competition but as far as health and safety standards are concerned, ‘loose’ milk loses out to packaged milk. After undergoing UHT and while packed in a Tetra Pak cover, milk can safely be stored—even without refrigeration—for more than a month.

In the year 2010, Barrister Zafarullah Khan petitioned Lahore High court alleging the sale of adulterated packaged milk. His ‘source’ of information was newspaper reports and discovery of melamine contamination of milk in China. The court appointed a committee for examination of packaged milk and sent samples to different laboratories including PCSIR, the Food Department and Eurofins, an international food inspector based in Germany. Packaged milk from Pakistan was declared free of contamination and fit for human consumption by all of these organisations. In 2016, Barrister Zafarullah filed a petition stating that citizens had been consuming milk adulterated with chemicals including detergent powder resulting in serious diseases such as cancer and Hepatitis C. The matter is subjudice and I would wait to hear what the court appointed lawyers and specialists have to say. However, from a medical perspective, there is zero evidence that Hepatitis C (or a Cancer for that matter) can be caused by ingesting milk or milk products adulterated with chemicals. This kind of propaganda is usually a staple of ‘Drawing room’ discussions and WhatsApp groups, not the subject of a Supreme Court petition.

Barrister Zafarullah Khan is a one-man army, heading his ‘Watan Party’ and is not an expert in medicine. He has, in past, filed petitions to ban activities of all NGOs working in Pakistan, challenged the Punjab protection of Women against Violence Act, asked the Supreme Court to issue arrest warrants against Ambassador Husain Haqqani and challenged formation of new provinces. To his credit, he has also advocated re-opening YouTube in Pakistan, fought against sale of Steel Mills in 2006 and sought swift disposal of appeals and petitions filed by death row inmates.

The objections usually raised regarding packaged milk (addition of chemical preservatives, injecting animals with hormones, lack of ‘purity’) are based more on hearsay evidence, not on any facts. Boiling homogenised milk is not going to yield ‘Balaai’ no matter how much you try. The milk companies have made a centralised milk collection mechanism, which is not standard practice at the international level (such as in Australia, New Zealand and Gulf states) and this aspect of packaged milk can (and should) be criticised. The rising costs (and diminishing level) of animal fodder raises the cost of rearing an animal but the milk companies have a standard rate at which to buy product from farmers. Developing collection and supplies on a smaller, more local level is the answer to Pakistan’s milk dilemma. A localised system helps local farmers get a better price for their product.

The bottom line is that if you are a health-conscious consumer residing in a major city of Pakistan without access to UHT methods, packaged milk is a readymade answer to your requirements. If you are tradition-bound and prefer getting your milk from the local milk-man, you should at least learn the correct heating methods, or you would end up with milk without essential proteins.

The writer is a freelance columnist. Follow him on Twitter

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