The doodhwala, who had become a rare sight, at least in big cities where the average population gets its milk in pouches, is making a reappearance. Only, in his new avatar, he does not carry big aluminum cans strapped to a motorbike or van containing watery milk, but designer glass bottles that promise fresh, organic, unadulterated milk that comes straight from farms to homes in metros.
It might be a small phenomenon right now, but one that promises to get bigger, as people get increasingly conscious about what they eat and drink, especially with scary figures and surveys linking diet and disease in the news everyday. Moreover, milk is considered a basic commodity and holds a significant place in an Indian household. No wonder, India ranks first in milk production globally.
It’s this dilemma of an average consumer, wanting to get safe and good quality of the daily commodity, that spurred Dipank Sharma to launch Back 2 Basics Organics in Gurugram. Initially started to serve personal needs, the venture soon grew into a business proposition, as demand came in following word-of-mouth. Sharma, otherwise a real estate businessman with ventures in Kenya and India, now delivers A2 milk procured from indigenous cow breeds like Gir cows from Gujarat. A2 is cow’s milk that is free of a form of beta-casein proteins called A1, which are said to cause indigestion and other problems. “Consumers in cities either buy polypack milk sold by large corporations or depend on the local dairy guy to supply cow or buffalo milk. But they aren’t sure how hygienic the loose milk or how chemical-free the packaged milk is,” says Sharma.
“We grow the fodder for our cows on our own land, ensuring that they eat pesticide-free and graze freely. Our milk is of premium quality, so we charge Rs 150 per litre, but are able to ensure quality and recover operating costs,” he adds.
Delhi-based Aditya Sinhal’s decision to launch iOrganics in 2013 also stemmed from personal experience, as well as a desire to tap a growing market. “A few years back, while meeting one of my father’s acquaintances who runs a milk processing facility in a village in Punjab, I was offered milk not from the plant he was running, but from a cow he kept for himself. This intrigued me, so he explained that processed milk has little nutrition left after multiple courses of filtration and processing to remove cow dung and other impurities. This made me think of launching my own dairy farm to generate fresh milk not just for my family, but also as a business venture,” recalls Sinhal.
A software engineer by training, Sinhal was working in his father’s FMCG business before he started his dairy farm. “The idea behind launching this facility was to create a traceable and transparent milk-sourcing facility that is responsible for both the production and supply of milk without involving middlemen. We need to understand that the basic problem of milk quality in India originates from non-traceability of source,” Sinhal feels.
iOrganic cow milk is priced at Rs 72 per litre and undergoes 20 quality-control tests daily. Today, iOrganics has a herd size of 350 cows on a 100-acre farm in Sonipat, Haryana, with a milk output of around 2,500 litres per day. They supply to around 2,000 households in Delhi. “We are also approached by various grocery chains like Foodhall and e-tailers like BigBasket for daily milk supply to their customers,” the 32-year-old adds.
Kanika Yadav, co-founder of Whyte Farms, located in Alwar, Rajasthan, also experiences demand from big stores and cafes in Delhi. Operating a subscription-based model with home-delivered milk, they sell organic and indigenous cow breed milk at Rs 75 per litre.
“Our cows are fed with organic seasonal greens grown inhouse, which are cultivated with the cow dung from the farm itself. The cows are taken to the milking parlour, which is completely automatic and installed with advanced milking machines that ensure proper hygiene. Milk is then pasterurised and bottled in barrier-proof bottles ready for delivery,” says Yadav.
“We do not use oxytocin or any other hormonal injections to produce more milk. We are strictly against such artificial practices. Every cow is monitored and regularly checked for health. This ensures that a cow that has not fared well on health parameters is not milked, thereby ensuring safe and nutritious milk,” she adds. Whyte Farms started with 50 cows in 2016, catering to a small demographic, and today has 200 cows.
But good-quality milk is not a metro phenomenon alone. In Rajasthan’s Sawai Madhopur, which is as derelict as small-town India can get, completely organic Shabri Farm doesn’t supply milk from its hundred buffaloes and 40 cows beyond the town. Owner Shrilal Meena says all of their milk is consumed within the town itself, as people know that the quality is good and the milk pure, and don’t mind paying that little bit extra for it. “That the milk is organic might not be its selling point, as people here are not so aware of the concept, but they know the milk is pure and, hence, the demand,” says Meena. When asked if he wants to supply to nearby Jaipur and even Delhi, where the label of ‘organic’ commands immense value, he smiles. “Pure milk will spoil very soon. How can I transport it to other cities? I don’t add any preservatives.”
Walking on his farm, even before you see the buffaloes and cows, you see a shed growing fodder for the animals. But the germinating corn has no soil underneath it. The technique used is hydroponics, using no soil and minimal water. Automatically-refilling water pods are another revelation in the sheds housing the animals. A lab next door tests all the milk for purity and fat content. No hormones are injected in the animals, and when the milk production tapers naturally, he sells the animals to other farmers. There is no artificial insemination practised either. Clean, efficient practices are what Meena clearly believes in. Growing organic produce and organic milk in a small town where chemicals are used freely by poor farmers to boost productivity and make ends meet is a big feat. But Meena is lucky. He has no financial compulsions. A retired LIC official, he lives off his 16 acres and has plenty to spare—both produce and money.
The black in white
There are many reasons why these modern milkmen are being sought after by an increasing number of households. As per a 2012 Food Safety Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) nationwide surveillance survey, the amount of milk found to be adulterated was 68.4%. A majority of the samples collected were diluted with water or contained impurities like urea, liquid formaldehyde and detergent solution.
But large corporates can’t really be blamed, feel food experts. “Most adulteration occurs at small-scale farms that supply to major milk companies. By adding water, farmers increase the volume, while other additives increase the fat content and thus the value of the milk. They may not necessarily be harmful,” says Saurabh Arora, founder, Food Safety Helpline, and executive director, ARBRO Analytical Division, a food testing lab accredited by the National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration. “When the survey says ‘adulterated’, it doesn’t necessarily mean unfit for consumption. Rather, only very few samples may be unsafe,” he adds.
Reportedly, farmers in small villages with limited livestock inject their breed with antibiotics and hormones to increase milk production and mix detergent and oil to increase the fat content. “The collection agent then collects this milk based on fat content and then, owing to poor cold chain storage facilities, adds formalin or peroxide to prolong the milk’s freshness. Milk brands procure their milk from these collection agents, pasteurise and homogenise the milk, and sell it as packaged milk,” explains Sinhal of iOrganics.
Cattle are often fed with steroids and hormonal injections to boost milk production. Oxytocin, a naturally-occurring hormone, is misused widely in the dairy industry, where livestock are injected with the hormone to make them release milk at a time convenient to farmers.
To check the wide misuse of oxytocin, the government banned its retail sale in 2014 and states were asked to impose stricter regulations.
Yet things are not as desired. “To ensure the welfare of dairy animals, we have Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Registration of Cattle Premises), 1978. Unfortunately, the authorities have failed to enforce these rules. A major reason is that a lot of these urban and peri-urban dairies are not registered and a lot of them are functioning illegally,” says Gajender K Sharma, India country director, World Animal Protection, an international non-profit animal welfare organisation. The organisation, along with the National Dairy Research Institute, developed the National Code of Practices for Management of Dairy Animals in India (National Dairy Code) in October 2014, which was recommended to all state governments. “However, most states are yet to take any action on this,” says Sharma.
So it’s not without reason that the farm-to-table milk industry is thriving. To win the confidence of customers, most farms get independent lab tests done weekly, checking for water, fat and other adulterants. “We even educate our customers about how even they can get our milk checked for adulterants,” Sinhal of iOrganics says.
The other side
But corporate milk brands are confident of their quality. For instance, Mother Dairy, which is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the National Dairy Development Board, sources milk from village-level, farm-centric institutions. “At these centres, milk poured by millions of farmers undergoes basic quality tests before it is transferred to chilling plants in temperature-controlled vehicles. Here, it further undergoes extensive testing, including for adulterants, before being chilled at the desired temperature to be sent to the processing plant,” says Sandeep Ghosh, business head, milk, Mother Dairy Fruit & Vegetable. “These plants are fully automated, restricting human touch at all stages and ensuring application of food safety management principles to provide clean, hygienic and safe product for consumers,” he adds.
The corporation has developed its own quality-control measures to check adulterants. “We developed a test for the detection of maltodextrin (a food additive) in 2008 and patented the process. Then we employed a detergent-detection test in 2011, much ahead of other competitors in the category. We assure our consumers that each drop of milk processed by us is nutritious, hygienic and safe,” says Ghosh. Also, the milk producer randomly lifts samples from the market and gets them tested for various analytical parameters and adulterants. “This is to ensure that the consumers get the same high-quality milk that we have processed and dispatched,” he adds.
Recently, the company was awarded the ‘Quality Mark’ for its polypack variants, which stands for adherence to stringent compliance of quality norms adopted in hygienic and safe handling of milk, right from its point of collection till it reaches the hands of consumers. The certification is awarded based on an assessment of dairy processing units conducted by a consortium of panels, including the FSSAI, NDDB and dairy experts.
“Only packaged milk in our country needs to have an FSSAI licence. There is no quality control for the rest. So while untreated milk may be devoid of adulterants, there is always the threat of bacterial contamination,” Arora of ARBRO says.
Nestlé India, which works with over 90,000 farmers at the grassroots level, assures of keeping their farmers abreast with the best dairy practices. “We provide technical assistance, veterinary services, subsidised medicine and education on good dairy practices in our field camps for farmers,” says a Nestlé India spokesperson. The Nestlé a+ milk, which is sold in tetrapacks, undergoes 60 quality checks. “Our packaging material is designed for retaining quality and ensuring that the milk retains all its goodness till the time it reaches our consumers,” the spokesperson adds.
Non-dairy milks, too, are becoming a popular option with not just lactose-intolerant and vegan consumers, but those who want to try out alternative variants. Almond milk, soy milk, coconut milk, macadamia, rice, cashew and hemp milk are other options that are being sold in supermarkets. As per a study published in the Journal of Food Science and Technology in late 2017, soy milk fared as a top choice to replace cow milk. The study investigated the nutritional differences between cow’s milk and four popular plant-based milk alternatives across the world—almond, soy, rice and coconut milk. The authors rated soy on top because it is rich in proteins and can help drinkers maintain a balanced diet.
Dairy-free milks can easily be made from scratch at home with ingredients you already have in your pantry. And that could be the best way to have high-quality, chemical-free milk. All you need are some nuts, a powerful blender and a fine sieve.