Pakistan ranks as the fourth largest milk producing country in the world. Milk and the livestock sector jointly contribute approximately 11 percent to GDP.
According to the Economic Survey of Pakistan (2015-16), the annual production of milk in Pakistan is over 50 billion liters. This raw milk is either sold by farmers or is procured by the milk industry to be processed. Processing includes either pasteurisation or ultra-high treatment. Interestingly, packaged milk is still as small a sector as as only eight percent of the total milk produced in the country.
Statistics shows that approximately seven billion liters of unprocessed milk or raw milk is used for drinking in the country. Raw milk poses various health hazards to humans as it carries different dangerous bacteria from the animals; moreover unhygienic grazing conditions or dirty water can badly compromise the quality of milk.
As milk has rich nutrition, it is a favourite site for naturally occurring bacteria to grow. Which is why it is highly recommended to pasteurise milk and only after that consume it. Pasteurisation means heating the milk at high temperature to kill dangerous bacteria. The process also increases the shelf life of the milk so it can be consumed for more time if kept in appropriate conditions.
There is a general misconception about the process of pasteurisation or ultra-high temperature (UHT) that heating milk destroys the valuable nutrition in it. But, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), USA “pasteurisation does not reduce milk’s nutritional value.” The CDC also highlights that the processing may decrease some vitamins like Vitamin C, but that is not the major nutrient of the milk. After pasteurisation, milk is usually kept in packaging, which is pre sterilised, and then sent to market to be used by consumers.
To avoid health hazards and to get maximum benefit of the most nutritious natural food, it is highly advisable to adopt a habit of consuming safe and pasteurised/UHT milk. As an example, not only developed countries like France, Spain, Turkey etc depend on packaged UHT milk, but a country like India is also relying on pasteurised milk and advocating it. According to the National Dairy Plan in India, they have set a target of selling 70 percent milk as packaged by 2025.
With such a huge market for milk production and consumption, Pakistan should focus on measures to provide good quality milk to people. Various steps should be adopted by the government to encourage this sector. At the grassroots level, trainings should be given to farmers to adopt safe measures to keep their animals healthy. Farmers should also be facilitated to adopt modern farming methods and should be made aware of new technology including use of scientific practices in mulching, adequate availability of fodder in all seasons, availability of veterinary health services, cold value chain etc. Both the government and the milk industry should play their part in giving technical knowledge to farmers and helping them in this regard.
At the policy level, the government should review its tax regime and further minimise the taxes on packaged milk, so it becomes affordable to those deprived of nutritious food and facing malnutrition. Milk can serve the purpose of providing healthy food to them and can combat the issue of malnutrition. Moreover, despite the flourishing milk industry in the country, increased taxes leading to expensive milk will discourage investment in the sector. Eventually, costly packaged milk can revert people to loose milk, which can pose health hazards and burden the health economics of the country.
On milk safety and quality, public agencies and private food producers should work together to improve the quality and nutritional content of milk via improved regulatory, monitoring and control mechanisms for hygienic food processing and improved packaging, and provide conducive regulatory environment and enforcement of laws to enable good standard milk.
Last but not least there is a desperate need at the governmental level to educate people and consumers about the risks of having unhygienic milk that can cause various diseases to the human body.
The writer is a public health consultant.