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KARACHI, April 1: Laboratory examinations of randomly collected samples of fresh (raw/unpasteurised) milk being sold at various locations across the city indicate that an estimated 25 per cent of the milk on the market has lower than acceptable levels of fat content while at least 33 per cent is contaminated by dangerous bacteria, rendering the milk unsafe for human consumption.

In an investigation into milk adulteration practices, Dawn collected 16 samples of unpasteurised milk from sale points in 12 of the city’s towns. These samples were collected in the presence of the city government’s food inspectors and their fat content was examined at the food department laboratory of the city government. An additional six samples were sent to the Aga Khan University Hospital’s laboratory to check for contaminants or bacteria.

Of the 16 samples submitted for examination, the food department lab found that four samples contained less than the standard 5 per cent fat content. Two of these samples had been collected from Landhi and one each from Lea Market and Gulshan-i-Iqbal.

Meanwhile, the Aga Khan University Hospital laboratory confirmed that of the six samples it had received, two contained very high levels of the E.coli bacteria, which indicates the presence of faecal material and is responsible for life threatening illnesses such as hepatitis, typhoid fever and dysentery. Such avoidable illnesses put further pressure on the city’s already overstretched public health care infrastructure.

The E.coli bacteria were found in samples collected from Gulistan-i-Jauhar and Clifton. Other samples were found to contain unacceptably high levels of substances such as yeast and the laboratory declared four of the six samples “bacteriologically unsatisfactory.”

Integrity of food inspectors

In order to collect milk samples for the purposes of checking fat content, Dawn was accompanied to the 12 towns by the city government’s food inspectors, whose job it is to regularly collect samples of food items in order to check for adulteration, impurities and unsafe food handling practices. During the sample collection by this newspaper, however, a number of anomalies came to light that raised questions of laxness and/or corruption on part of the city government’s food inspectors.

For example, while the majority of the shopkeepers visited knew the food department inspectors, they were surprisingly unaware of the procedure for taking food samples: each sample is divided between three sealed bottles; one is left for the shopkeeper’s records while two are taken away by the food inspector, one to be sent to the laboratory and one kept for the food department’s records.

Upon being questioned by Dawn, some of the shopkeepers said that officials from the food department visited them every two or three months “for a chat” and left without taking any samples, while others alleged that the officials extorted money from them. During the process of sample taking, a storekeeper recognised and accused one of the food department team members accompanying Dawn of coming to collect money every two to three months.

Procedure dictates that the food department officials pay the price of the samples taken but most of the shopkeepers looked surprised when, during Dawn’s presence, the officials handed over the cost of the collected sample. Subsequently, however, after much persuasion most of the shopkeepers charged Rs36 per litre of milk although the government rate at the time of sample collection was Rs32 per litre. Only a couple of shopkeepers proved to be the exceptions.

Government laboratory credibility

As mentioned before, the city government laboratory declared that of the 16 milk samples it received, four were found to have lower than the standard 5 per cent level of fat content. However, scenes witnessed by Dawn during the process of sample collection raise doubts about the credibility of the laboratory’s testing procedures.

A shopkeeper near Alnoor Society in Gulberg Town, for example, was selling milk at Rs28 a litre although the government’s rate was Rs32 per litre and the standard price in his vicinity was Rs36 a litre. Asked about this, he said that he added about 10 kilogrammes of ice to every 40 litres of milk, so he was “charging only for the milk and not for the water” that had been mixed in the form of ice. Given this voluntary confession of adulteration, it is curious that the government laboratory subsequently passed the sample taken from the iced milk and stated that the milk was pure.

Similarly, at a North Karachi shop, this writer saw a block of about 10 kilogrammes of ice in a container of about 50-60 litres of milk. This sample was also passed as ‘pure’ by the laboratory.

There remains the question, meanwhile, of the quality and cleanliness of the water used to make the ice.

At Lea market, the wholesale market for milk coming from the interior of the province, an owner stated that the sample being collected was actually cow milk, which has naturally lower levels of fats (3.5 per cent) than buffalo milk (5 per cent). However, the sample was wrongly labelled buffalo milk by city government officials and was subsequently failed by the laboratory, putting a question mark over the transparency of the entire exercise.

Asked about these curious test results, the chief food inspector of the city government, Abdul Waheed Bhatti, explained that the shopkeeper who had confessed to having added ice to milk was selling it at Rs28 a litre because “such shopkeepers purchase milk from the market when prices are low. Besides,” added Mr Bhatti, “he could also be selling cheaply just to show off.”

Referring to the shop where this writer saw ice floating in the milk but the sample was passed as pure, Mr Bhatti said that “we follow the laboratory report – we have honest and hardworking people working in the laboratory.”

According to Mr Bhatti, the fact that four out of 16 samples failed to meet standards was normal, since it was usual for 15 to 20 per cent of submitted food samples to be declared unfit. “During the calendar year 2007, some 253 samples of buffalo milk were taken and 87 of these – slightly under 30 per cent – were found to have less than the standard fat content and therefore failed to pass the test,” he said.

The 12 towns from where the samples to check fat content were collected were: Landhi, Korangi, Shah Faisal, Malir, Lyari, Saddar, Jamshed town, Gulshan, Gulberg, North Nazmiabad, Liaquatabad and North Karachi.

Dangerous practices

According to Mr Bhatti, the situation of food adulteration is not as bad as is perceived in the city. “In fact, the milk sold in Karachi is amongst the best qualities sold anywhere in the country since cattle owners feed their animals a rich diet,” he maintained. “In the countryside, cattle are taken to the woods for grazing and their diet is usually comprised of grass and crop waste.”

The city gets its milk supply from Landhi’s Cattle Colony, cattle pens along the Super Highway, the Hub River Road, the interior of the province and various illegally established cattle pens in different parts of the city.

The levels of hygiene in these pens, locally known as baras, is abysmal and the overcrowded cattle are surrounded by dung and waste. The men milking the cattle rarely wash their hands before starting the job and their levels of personal hygiene, too, leave much to be desired. The pens are infested with flies and insects, many of which get into the containers in which milk is collected and transported. When the milk reaches the shops in the city, most shopkeepers filter it through a thin rag and this writer has witnessed the number of dead flies and suspended particles that remain in the cloth after the milk is ‘cleaned’.

At Lea Market, the traditional method by which traders check the purity of the milk is by plunging their hands into it, cupping some in their palms and then pouring it back. Few of these traders pause to wash their hands before carrying out this procedure.

Another matter for concern is that that the overwhelming majority of the calves born to buffaloes are slaughtered soon after birth so that cattle owners can sell the milk that would otherwise have been consumed by the calf. As a result, the cattle do not give milk readily and have to be administered an oxitocin hormonal injection which causes the animal to give milk within minutes of having being injected. It is possible that this hormone is present in the milk, which could be dangerous for the health of human consumers.

‘Bacteriologically unsatisfactory’

Meanwhile, the Aga University Hospital laboratory declared that four of the six samples of milk submitted to it were “bacteriologically unsatisfactory.”

Analysing the results, experts told Dawn that a sample containing an E.coli count of less than 100 cfu/ml is considered satisfactory while a count of more than 10,000 cfu/ml is unacceptable and can prove dangerous, as was found to be the case in the samples collected from Gulistan-i-Jauher and Clifton.

The former was found to contain more than 2.317 million cfu/ml of E.coli, in addition to a total colony count of 28.8 million cfu/ml, 2.317 million coliform bacteria and 298,000 yeast fungi. The sample from Clifton contained 1.622 million cfu/ml of the E.coli bacteria in addition to a total colony count of 3.112 million cfu/ml, over 1.622 million coliform bacteria and 463,500 yeast fungi. The laboratory declared both samples “bacteriologically unsatisfactory.”

The milk sample from Landhi had a total colony count of over 3.145 cfu/ml, more than 2.317 million coliform bacteria and 165,562 yeast fungi. The Aga Khan University Hospital laboratory declared the sample “bacteriologically unsatisfactory.”

Similarly, the sample from the Orangi showed a total colony count of 32,000 cfu/ml, 144,000 coliform bacteria and 16,000 yeast fungi. The sample was declared “bacteriologically unsatisfactory.”

The milk sample taken from Liaquatabad, on the other hand, had a total colony count of 2.98 million cfu/ml, more than 3.145 million coliform bacteria and 198,600 yeast fungi. The sample was considered “bacteriologically satisfactory.”

The milk sample from Keamari was also declared “bacteriologically satisfactory” with a total colony count of 30 million cfu/ml and over 26 million coliform bacteria.

The head of the Aga Khan University’s Pathology Department, Dr Rumina Hasan, told Dawn that the presence of E.coli bacteria indicated the presence of faecal content in the milk samples which could cause life threatening illnesses including typhoid fever, diarrhoea, dysentery and Hepatitis A and E.

The consumption of raw or unpasteurised milk should be avoided at all costs, pointed out Dr Afia Zafar of the university. “It is essential to boil milk before using it since the process of boiling kills the bacteria,” she told Dawn.

The six towns from where samples were collected to check the presence of bacteria were: Landhi, Gulsitan-i-Jauher, Orangi, Liaquatabad, Keamari and Clifton.