By Maneka Sanjay Gandhi
How many of us know what is being fed to animals that give us milk? It is time we did because lack on control over what they are fed is turning milk toxic in India.
In September, scientists at the government Central Food Toxicology Research detected cancer-causing fungal toxins exceeding safety limits in samples of ultra-high-temperature (UHT) processed milk- milk considered to be extremely sterile and pure. UHT milk is usually sold in tetrapacks as a shelf-stable product that needs no refrigeration until opened.
The poisonous compound called aflatoxin M1 was found in 20 per cent of the samples of UHT (Ultra High Temperature processed) milk they examined. Samples were collected from all over India. They found aflatoxin M1 levels exceeding limits imposed by India's Food Safety and Standards Authority (FSSA) also in six out of 45 samples of raw milk and in three out of seven samples of pasteurised milk. The raw and pasteurised milk was collected from milk suppliers across Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Their findings have appeared in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology.
Since the late 1990s, reports of aflatoxins in milk have emerged from Thrissur in Kerala and Anand in Gujarat. Biochemists at the Indian Institute of Toxicology Research (IITR), Lucknow had detected very high aflatoxin levels in samples of infant milk food, milk-based weaning cereals and liquid milk in 2004.
More than forty years later, the dairy industry in India – that relies on milk supplies from livestock – does not test samples for aflatoxin before they pool the milk for industry-level processing.
There are no pastures left in this country and cows/buffalos graze on the roadsides and on dirty human trodden grass. All green fodder grown for animals is grown with pesticides. Nobody knows what they eat.
High levels of aflatoxins in livestock feed such as maize residue and peanut cake seem to be the reason for the toxins in milk. This is not the first time that warnings have been given to the livestock sector. In north-west India in 1974, thousands of cattle died after eating mouldy maize with extremely high aflatoxin levels (ranging from 6250 to 15,600 mg/kg).
Aflatoxin-producing members of Aspergillus — a family of harmful fungi — are common and widespread in nature. They can colonize and contaminate grain before harvest or during storage. Host crops, which include maize, sorghum, and groundnuts, are particularly susceptible to infection by Aspergillus following prolonged exposure to a high-humidity environment, or damage from stressful conditions such as drought. Humidity, moisture, and poor storage conditions contribute to the growth of fungi and aflatoxins in livestock feed.
Researchers have reported high values “up to 3,300 micrograms per kg” of the fungal toxin aflatoxin B1 in livestock feed. Aflatoxin B1 is metabolised by animals and converted into aflatoxin M1, which is secreted in milk. Aflatoxins are also sometimes found in eggs and meat when animals are fed contaminated grains.
Since studies show that these aflatoxins are resistant to heat treatment, the object should be to reduce their intake. But while most developed countries have set maximum permissible limits for aflatoxin levels in livestock feed, no such mandatory limits exist for livestock fodder in India. The limit for aflatoxins in milk set by the European Commission is “0.05 microgram per kg.” 90 per cent of our milk is higher than this.
In 2006 FSSAI imposed 0.5 microgram per kg limit on milk in India - 10 times higher than the EC limit. Even that is lower than what is currently found.
Recent studies conducted by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in South India revealed that aflatoxin levels were as high as 40 times the permissible limit. In a study published in the journal Food Control, researchers found that over 90% of the milk samples used in the study contained aflatoxin M1 levels. In these studies, contamination of milk was found to be high in both rural and urban areas, across a cross section of the population. Children were found to be most susceptible to the adverse health effects of these toxins.
At least 14 different types of aflatoxin are produced in nature. These are among the most potent of carcinogens that cause more than 90,000 cases of liver cirrhosis and liver cancer each year.
Consumption of aflatoxins can also lead to vomiting, abdominal pain, liver damage, convulsions, kidney, liver and heart disease, and in extreme cases, coma and death. Long-term aflatoxin poisoning in cattle leads to decrease in growth rate, lowered milk production and immune suppression. Some experiments have also shown high incidence of hepatitis B infection where dietary exposure to aflatoxins was prevalent.
Aflatoxins are strongly associated with stunting and immune suppression in children. In a 2015 study published by the Mitigating Aflatoxin Consumption for Improving Child Growth, researchers established a relationship between aflatoxin exposure and linear child growth.
Animals suffering from chronic aflatoxin poisoning exhibit various symptoms. But in our country where vets are like hair on a near balding head, who is interpreting these symptoms?
Remember that if UHT milk, which means milk that has been pasteurized at very high temperatures, cannot remove the fungus, it is better not to drink the stuff at all.
To join the animal welfare movement contact firstname.lastname@example.org, www.peopleforanimalsindia.org