FSSAI report that found carcinogen in TN milk was lopsided, say producers

milk, FSSAI, Tamil Nadu, adulteration
A recent study conducted by FSSAI said that Tamil Nadu topped the list of states whose milk samples were found with traces of aflatoxin, a carcinogen. Photo: iStock

A recent study by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) over milk safety has stirred up a fresh controversy in Tamil Nadu with many milk producers and dealers in the state accusing the authority of coming up with a biased report to serve ulterior motives.

The finding

The study, ‘Milk Safety and Quality Survey 2018’, reports of which were recently shared by FSSAI, claimed that traces of aflatoxin M1 (AFM1), a carcinogen, was found in some of the milk samples that were tested. Tamil Nadu topped the list, recording the highest rate of aflatoxin contamination with 88 of 551 samples testing positive for the carcinogen. It was followed by Delhi (38 out of 262 samples) and Kerala (37 out of 187 samples). Aflatoxin is a residue produced by fungus-affected fodder when consumed by cattle.

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Earlier, FSSAI conducted milk surveys in 2011 and 2016, but the safety parameters weren’t taken into account. This is the first time it focused on the required safety levels of contaminants present in milk. The study which was conducted across the country between May and October last year collected samples of milk from 1,103 towns/cities with a population of above 50,000. The samples were collected both from organised (retailers and processors) and non-organised (local dairy farms and milk vendors) players.

Also read: 37.7% of processed milk samples fail to meet quality norm: FSSAI study

Of 6,432 collected samples, 368 were found to be contaminated largely with Aflatoxin-M1. This is also the first time that the presence of Aflatoxin-M1 was assessed. The carcinogenic contaminant was found highly present in the samples from Tamil Nadu (88 out of 551 samples), Delhi (38 out of 262 samples) and Kerala (37 out of 187 samples).

Debate around TN’s dairy industry

Dairy farmers and milk dealers who have raised objections to the report have questioned the “diminutive” sample size of the survey.

“In India, around 155 million tonnes of milk is produced on a daily basis. Taking only 6,000 samples from such a huge quantity is not a justifiable one. Also, stating that Tamil Nadu has topped in the list is not right. Because, in 2012, the same FSSAI has submitted an affidavit in the Supreme Court saying that the state was the second in the list of states which showed no chemical adulteration in milk,” says SA Ponnusamy, state president, Tamil Nadu Milk Dealers Welfare Association (TNMDWA).

In 2017, Rajendra Balaji, the state minister for milk and dairy development claimed that private companies and dealers adulterate milk with various chemicals. Followed by that the TNMDWA filed an RTI with TN food safety and drugs administration department, seeking information pertaining to samples taken from milk producers.

“The reply we got shocked us. Between 2011 and 2017, the department collected 714 milk samples, of which 26 were found to be adulterated. But the samples were taken mostly from one particular private company, which has branches across the state. The department had taken only six milk samples of Aavin, the state government’s milk producer, from only four districts of the state,” said Ponnusamy.

Also read: For a scientific cow cue, look to the Netherlands

Also, during this time, the association filed an RTI with FSSAI’s six labs in the state. Here, the reply said that between 2011 and 2018, the number of samples collected from private players across the state was 1,607. Of this, none of the samples had any kind of adulteration which would affect humans.

Ulterior motives

Ponnusamy says the study is biased and has ulterior motives.

“Accusing private players alone cannot be justified. The current study of FSSAI was largely based on milk samples collected from the private sector. The study has not analysed the government sector’s milk samples. There are already rumours that multinational companies are planning to take over the Indian dairy sector. We think the study has ulterior motives”, Ponnusamy alleged.

What is aflatoxin?

Although private companies have been alleged of using chemicals in milk to contain the rise in bacteria, Aflatoxin – M1 is not produced by any artificial elements.

With the dairy industry being a ‘production by masses’ sector, having a stringent quality assurance measure is a difficult,” says S Muthukumar, a veterinary scientist based in Nagapattinam.

“Aflatoxin – M1 is a mycotoxin. It is produced by the fungal growth on paddy straw, silage, pellet feed, etc. which are fed to cows. Generally, farmers in the state store fodder in an open space. They don’t have sufficient economy to build a separate storage facility. When the weather changes and the moisture level increases in the air due to rain, the fungus grows on the fodder. The fodder converts to aflatoxin when fed by the cattle and is secreted through the milk,” Muthukumar says.

When ingested by humans in form of milk, the carcinogenic contaminant, can affect the liver. It can cause jaundice, too.

“The BIS has said that the permissible level of aflatoxin in the food can be at 20 ppb,” Muthukumar say adding that the only way to prevent fugal growth in fodder is to have a good storage facility.

No scope for adulteration, say producers

The study claimed that 41% of milk samples had lower fat and SNF (solids not fats) levels in strict non-compliance with FSSAI standards.

Countering the claim, MG Rajendran, general secretary of Tamil Nadu Milk Producer’s Welfare Association (TNMPWA) claims that there is no possibility of adulteration or contamination in the milk supplied by the state co-operative societies.

“In rural areas, the ‘Anand model’ is being followed. As part of it, milk from a dairy farmer or cattle farm owner is supplied to the primary milk co-operative societies. There the fat and SNF (solids not fats) levels are tested and accordingly the price is determined for the respective milk producer. These levels are set in strict compliance with FSSAI rule to have 3.5% fat and 8.5% SNF in milk. Also, an ordinary dairy producer or farmer doesn’t have the wherewithal to use chemicals to improve the fat and SNF levels,” he says.

Soon after the FSSAI report was out, the state dairy department’s commissioner sent out an order prohibiting sale of raw milk procured from individual milk producers through primary co-operative societies. The order said that packaged Aavin milk instead can be sold to the consumers.

“In co-operative societies we don’t have enough facilities to gauge the levels of contaminants like aflatoxin. The study has said that such contamination is being found largely in the processed and packed milk. Moreover, in rural areas, people like to buy loose milk and not packed ones. We opposed the commissioner’s order stating that the suggestions will affect the administration of co-operative societies. Followed by that, the order has been withdrawn,” he says.

The state government should provide the milk producers with good cattle feed and incentives to maintain FSSAI’s fat and SNF levels, says Rajendran.   

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