Veritable health crisis or is the dairy minister milking the controversy? By: Archana Kumar
Editor’s Note: Tamil Nadu’s milk and dairy products minister Rajendra Balaji recently attacked private dairy firms in the state, accusing them of mixing harmful chemicals in the milk they sell. The state Milk Dealers’ Association raised strong objection but the minister stuck fast to his claim. In this two-part series, Firstpost investigates the validity of Balaji’s charge and the industry’s contention.
On 23 May, Tamil Nadu’s dairy development minister KT Rajendra Balaji made an astounding statement to media persons at a press conference in Chennai: “Private milk companies are using banned substances in the milk in an effort to maximise profits,” he said. “Private milk is not milk… it is poison.”
This dramatic declaration got much airspace and sent young mothers into a state of frenzy. Out of a total of 1.5 crore litres of milk sold in Tamil Nadu in a day, private producers have the lion’s share of the pie – 1.25 crore litres per day is sold by all private milk companies combined. The state government-run Aavin sells 25 lakh litres of milk to consumers every day, a meagre 17 percent share of the total milk market.
K Ponnusamy, president of Milk Dealers’ Association of Tamil Nadu, denied the minister’s allegations on behalf of private milk producers. “Privately produced milk in Tamil Nadu is completely safe for consumption. The minister must not make such statements which will put fear into the minds of people. If what the minister says is true, let him name the companies responsible for milk adulteration and take immediate action against them, instead of spreading fear,” he argued.
Days and weeks went by. Balaji refused to produce test results of milk samples – which he claimed showed the presence hydrogen peroxide (bleaching powder), pesticides, caustic soda, formaldehyde and detergent. A week after his first declaration, Balaji said, “We have all the evidence. We have sent the samples to Central government labs in Pune and Mysore. We are awaiting the results in order to strengthen our case.”
And so, Firstpost investigated
With panic mounting amongst the people of the state, who were unsure as to whether or not to drink milk, Firstpost decided to conduct random sampling of private milk brands.
When this reporter approached the state government lab, King Institute, she was told that the test cannot be done. “We have a lot of government samples already and we cannot do it,” said an official there.
So an alternate strategy was adopted. A friend was sent posing as a young mother fearful for her child’s safety and King Institute agreed to analyse the milk samples brought by her.
Five containers of milk were handed over for analysis. Sample A contained Jersey milk. Sample B contained state-owned Aavin milk. Sample C, D and E contained Arokya, Heritage and Tirumala milk respectively. These private brands were chosen as they are the most popular ones in the state. The samples were handed over on 30 May. The results were handed back on 16 June.
“The said sample was analysed and found to conform to standards for the tests carried out specified for cow milk under regulation 2.1.1 of Food Safety and Standards Regulations Act 2011” – this was the final observation in all the sample results.
Meaning the milk tested was safe for consumption.
A weak case?
Towards the end of the first week of June, the anxiety over adulterated private milk had reached fever pitch. In an effort to allay the fears of the people, Madurai district collector Veeraraghava Rao launched a series of mobile labs to test milk in the district. From 9 June, residents of Madurai and surrounding areas began to queue up, bringing samples of milk for testing. The latest findings of the sampling drive, that is continuing at present, is that out of 188 samples of packaged milk, not a single one was found to be sub-standard or harmful in any way.
On 19 June, the Animal Husbandry and Dairy Development Department of Tamil Nadu submitted an affidavit in the Madras High Court, in a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed in early June by a Congress-affiliated lawyer AP Suryaprakasam, over allegations of milk adulteration.
In the state’s affidavit, Health Secretary J Radhakrishnan claimed that 187 milk samples out of 886 samples analysed across all districts of the state were either ‘sub-standard’ or ‘misbranded’. The affidavit added that ‘sub-standard’ could mean the milk was diluted with water or that vegetable fats were added. ‘Misbranding’ could be labelling mistakes, where ingredients were not mentioned, added the affidavit.
In this sampling survey done by the state government between August 2011 and May 2017, milk products too were tested, according to the affidavit filed in court. Eleven samples were found unsafe due to the presence of colours in them. In five other samples, microbes like coliform, yeast and mould were found, as well as some detergent.
The minister stands firm
Firstpost approached Balaji with a copy of the sample test results conducted by us. “Since different labs are giving different results, we have sent the samples to the Central labs for final confirmation. When I made the statement on milk adulteration initially, the tests were conducted in our Aavin office in Madhavaram,” he said.
Balaji added, “Don’t make this a big issue. Our lab itself has some problems. After I made my statement all the private milk companies have rectified themselves and stopped milk adulteration. Now you leave this issue.”
On 27 June though, the minister was at it once again. He called for a press conference at his Greenways Road residence in Chennai and waved packets of Nestle Everyday and Reliance Dairy Whitener in front of cameras. “Apart from conducting tests through the department, I had asked my friends to conduct similar tests in private labs,” he alleged. “There are harmful chemicals in these products,” he said.
But copies of the test results handed out to journalists by him showed the presence of neutralisers and ‘milk solids not fat’ in slightly higher quantities.
Nestle and Reliance Life issued press releases denying the allegations. “Nestle Everyday Dairy Whitener is 100 percent safe for consumption and does not contain any caustic soda or bleaching powder. We are investigating these claims and have not received any formal notification from the authorities about such test results,” said Nestle.
“Reliance Retail categorically rejects recent media reports alleging that Reliance Dairy Whitener contains unsuitable ingredients like caustic soda and bleaching powder. The media reports seem to be based on the results of testing by Chennai Mettex Lab Pvt Ltd, which is not one of the laboratories accredited by the Food Safety Standards Authority of India,” stated Reliance.