Widely consumed in most parts of the world, milk and milk-based products are an important source of nutrition for human beings. As the population increases and incomes rise, the popularity of dairy products in many developing countries is rising. With increased production to meet the growing demand, ensuring high product quality and keeping adulteration at bay is gradually taking center stage.
Food adulteration poses a grave health risk and has become a key global concern. In India, we have witnessed adulteration across food sources – from small pebbles or stones in rice and the presence of powdered brick and boric powder in masalas to urea in milk and animal tallow in pure ghee, there are many such forms of contamination.
Statistics reveal that instead of a fall in contamination, there has been a consistent increase in food adulteration cases in the country. In 2012-13, just 15 per cent of the samples collected by the National Accreditation Board for Testing & Calibration Laboratories were found to be adulterated. However, this figure rose to 29 per cent of samples that failed to conform to standards in 2018-19. Of the 106,459 food samples collected by the laboratory, 3,900 samples were declared unsafe and close to 17,000 were found sub-substandard. This data is worrying indeed.
The government has been active in driving preventive measures. Over time, there has been an increase in penalties collected for violation of food standards. And yet, some of India’s most popular products – milk and ghee – are some of the most adulterated with the highest health risks.
Exposing Milk Adulteration
Globally, and especially in India, milk continues to be one of the most adulterated food products on the market. With the dairy market reaching a value of Rs 11,357 billion in 2020 and about 188 million MT production in 2019-20, India is the world’s largest producer of milk.
Despite the nation-wide proliferation of private and cooperative dairies, there exists a huge supply gap between the production and consumption of milk in the country. It is this gap that attracts unscrupulous food fraudsters who try to exploit the market by serving adulterated products. Since milk is an excellent medium for the growth of bacterial pathogens that can cause spoilage and make individuals feel unwell if consumed, this perishable nature of milk along with the non-standardisation of quality checks also serves to further illegal trade.
A 2019 report by Consumer Guidance Society of India (CGSI), a nonprofit organisation reveals that a worrying 79 per cent of branded or loose milk available in the market is adulterated. Of the 413 samples of milk tested for fat and solids-not-fat contents between January and December 2019, only 21 per cent of samples complied with the standard specifications set by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI).
Some of the common adulterants include table sugar used to increase the carbohydrate content and density of the milk, starch to increase the solid-not-fat (SNF), benzoic acid, salicylic acid to increase shelf life, and soap to make the milk thicker or denser.
Impact of dairy adulteration
While these examples are concerning, the exhaustive list of adulterants includes various other products. Formalin is a disinfectant used to increase its shelf life. Ammonium sulphate is commonly used as it has the tendency to increase the lactometer reading by maintaining the density of milk. Another concern about adulterated milk is the higher-than-permissible levels of antibiotic residues in it.
The consumption of adulterated food can have both short-term and long-term impacts. Melamine, a nitrogen-rich compound added to increase the protein count in milk can cause kidney-related problems, starch can cause diarrhea, urea can lead to kidney damage. Hydrogen peroxide, another additive used to increase shelf life, can affect the digestive system and consumption of detergents can affect the intestine and kidneys. No wonder then that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that a major portion of the Indian population might face life-threatening diseases by 2025 if milk adulteration is not checked immediately.
Adulteration of Ghee
Like milk, another dairy product that has been known to be adulterated, is ghee. Ghee has always been a favourite product in India and its market demand has increased in recent years with the rediscovery of its benefits as a healthy fat. The Indian ghee market attained a value of Rs 2,374 billion in 2020. The market price of ghee is almost three times more than the price of edible vegetable oils and fats. Coupled with the high price and the output falling short of the demand, adulteration of ghee has become a common malpractice in recent times.
At times, the adulteration of ghee starts at the milk stage itself. Groundnut oil, emulsion of coconut oil or other cheap oils are added to the milk or cream. Tallow or other animal meat fats and bones are also mixed with the ghee. When it comes to ghee, the detection of adulteration becomes difficult because the chemical characteristics of ghee adulterated with animal meat fat falls within the normal range of pure ghee.
Challenges in testing
Given the rampant adulteration of food products such as milk and ghee, it is imperative that all necessary steps be taken to combat this challenge. By incorporating modern food testing workflow into production, food producers and manufacturers are able to validate the authenticity and safety of their products in line with mandatory regulations. While the qualitative detection of adulterants in milk for example can be easily done with chemical reactions, quantitative detections are complex and diverse. Milk and its byproducts need to be tested for three main aspects: to secure the nutritional value of milk, to confirm the absence of suspected harmful chemicals in milk, and to ensure its authenticity and rule out adulteration.
Solutions such as gas and liquid chromatography, atomic spectroscopy, and mass spectrometry are widely used to ensure that dairy products are free from adulteration and contaminants through testing of beta-sitosterol, triglycerides, fatty acids, heavy metals, veterinary drugs, aflatoxins and pesticides. It is also essential to test for potentially toxic elements such as cadmium, tin, mercury, arsenic, and lead in animal-derived milk as contaminants could originate from animal feed, fertiliser, soil, or processing equipment.
Since adulteration of dairy is a pressing concern impacting health, various measures are being adopted to monitor and reduce contamination. Apart from government vigilance, the rise of branded food products has helped the battle against food adulteration. Food companies in India have been partnering with a host of agencies to check and eliminate adulteration and ensure the nutritional value of milk and its byproducts. These have been key to national efforts to check adulteration in food. With product choices increasing not just in stores but also online marketplaces, it is imperative that all available resources are leveraged to monitor adulteration and ensure the health and safety of the consumer.
Samir Vyas, Country Manager, Agilent India, Mumbai