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The Supreme Court ruling last fortnight directing the Center and states to amend laws to ensure stringent punishment for those guilty of adulterating milk and other food produce is a welcome step

By Ramesh Menon 

Milk has always been synonymous with health and balanced nutrition. Rewind to your childhood and images flash of being chided for not drinking the morning glass-full. And it’s not just children—both the young and the old consume milk since traditional wisdom has it that a glass a day not only keeps the doctor away but helps build stronger bones and keeps the body in ship shape.

Unfortunately, the milk we imbibe today and persuade our children to religiously consume may actually be detrimental to health. Chances are that the wholesome product we think we are buying may be a toxic cocktail of urea, detergent powder, shampoo, white paint, refined oil and contaminated water. Over 68 percent of milk in the country has been found to be adulterated in a study conducted in 2011 by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI). It was found that adulteration was rampant in the country with the worst states being Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, West Bengal, Mizoram, Jharkhand and the Union territory of Daman and Diu. In some of these states, the adulteration was alarmingly found to be 100 percent in the samples tested!

Samples of milk at a lab in Delhi
Samples of milk at a lab in Delhi

The National Survey on Milk Adulteration, 2011, found that eight percent of 1,791 samples were adulterated with detergents. Ditto six percent of the samples tested in 2015 by the Ministry of Health. Food and drug administration officials in Pune found that almost 90 percent of the milk samples tested in 2014-15 were adulterated.

The Indian Council of Medical Research has pointed out that such adulteration could lead to the destruction of body tissue, cause impairments, heart problems, cancer and even death. It noted that while there would be no immediate effects, the long-term impact is cause for serious concern.

Operation Flood, launched in 1970 and the white revolution that followed made India the world’s largest producer of milk. But this creditable achievement is now being undermined by rampant adulteration being practiced by unscrupulous suppliers. Even water taken from untreated sources, often used to dilute milk, contaminates and is considered injurious to health. But the use of chemicals like urea and detergents to create “synthetic” milk has taken adulteration to another hazardous level. More than two-thirds of the milk in India does not meet food safety standards.

This is the reason why last fortnight the Supreme Court minced no words when it observed that it favored awarding life imprisonment to those guilty of adulterating milk. The court was responding to a petition filed by a group of concerned citizens hailing from different states who pleaded for more stringent punishment for adulterating milk. At present the crime is only punishable with a fine or a jail term of six months. Conviction is rare and so are the surprise checks to test the quality of milk.

Change in colour after adding reagent in a glucose adulterated milk sample from a tea shop

A bench comprising Chief Justice of India TS Thakur and Justices R Banumathi and UU Lalit expressed the view that adulteration of milk could adversely affect the growth of future generations and the menace had to be urgently tackled. The bench called upon the governments both at the center and the state to amend lenient laws that are prevalent and follow the states of Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Odisha which have made a crime like adulteration of milk punishable with life imprisonment. It also wanted a complaint mechanism to be evolved which could be used to check corruption and the unethical practices followed by food authorities across the country.

Advocate Anurag Tomar, who appeared for the petitioners, contended that milk contaminated with synthetic material was being sold in various states, particularly in the north, posing a serious threat to the life and health of consumers. He pleaded that the Center should be directed to amend the prevailing Food Safety Act and make punishment very stringent. Tomar told India Legal: “It is now up to the Center to act on the suggestion of the Supreme Court. It is in public interest and is a very serious health issue affecting all of us. The directions of the Supreme Court are also very practical and will bring in efficiency in the detection of adulteration.”

Uday  Mawani, Chief Executive Officer of the Ahmedabad based Consumer Education and Research Centre (CERC) told India Legal that consumers often found that the FSSAI helpline never worked and the response to complaints of milk adulteration was poor and the redressal mechanism ineffective. Moreover, as milk was transported over long distances without maintaining proper temperature, it gets infected with microbes rendering it unfit for consumption, he said.

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Soon after the directions from the Supreme Court, the Telangana government decided to make adulteration of milk a non-bailable offence with a maximum punishment of a life term. It is now left to other states to follow suit and take up adulteration seriously as it is not just milk but other foods that are also being adulterated.

Strict anti-adulteration laws can help fight the malaise which is playing havoc with public health. Look at how food items are rendered spurious before they reach the consumer. Tiny chalk crystals are mixed with sugar. White stone is powdered and added to salt. Brick powder mixes with red chilli powder. Sawdust and even powdered cow dung is mixed with coriander powder. Honey is adulterated with jaggery syrup. Sweets could have harmful coloring agents that are banned as they are carcinogenic.

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Adulteration has become big business. It remains to be seen if the Center actually acts on the suggestions of the Supreme Court. It is high time that laws are amended to discourage the practice of tampering with food products and punishing those guilty of being part of the vicious adulteration chain.

The National Survey on Milk Adulteration, 2011, found that eight percent of 1,791 samples were adulterated with detergents. Ditto six percent of the samples tested in 2015 by the Ministry of Health. Food and drug administration officials in Pune found that almost 90 percent of the milk samples tested in 2014-15 were adulterated.

Uday  Mawani, Chief Executive Officer of the Ahmedabad based Consumer Education and Research Centre (CERC) told India Legal that consumers often found that the FSSAI helpline never worked and the response to complaints of milk adulteration was poor and the redressal mechanism ineffective.

A bench comprising Chief Justice of India TS Thakur and Justices R Banumathi and UU Lalit expressed the view that adulteration of milk could adversely affect the growth of future generations and the menace had to be urgently tackled.

Lead picture: Milk being poured at a tea stall. Photo: Bhawna Gaur

Illustration: Rajender Kumar

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