The ongoing controversy over milk fortification between the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) and the Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation (GCMMF, better known as Amul). About the issues In September 2017, the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB), in collaboration with the World Bank and Tata Trusts, launched a Milk Fortification Project targeting fortification of about 2 million tonnes of liquid milk to reach at least 30 million consumers. Recent controversy

  1. The national food safety regulator, in October 2016, brought into effect standards for fortification of milk with vitamin A and D, using premix supplements such as retinyl acetate or palmitate (for the former) and cholecalciferol or ergocalciferol (for the latter).
  2. The fortification is being carried out as per the standards set by FSSAI. Till now, over one million tonnes of milk fortification has already been achieved.
  3. However, the idea of fortification hasn’t found favour with India’s largest and most reputed dairy brand: Amul. 
  4. The Rs 33,150 crore-turnover cooperative, which procures an average of 230 LLPD from 36 lakh producer-members, has said that it only supports “natural fortification” to address micronutrient deficiency. This is as opposed “synthetic or artificial fortification”. A chemically fortified product, according to it, could have toxic effects on the body, especially if the premix isn’t properly stored or used in excess.

What is food fortification? Fortification is the addition of key vitamins and minerals such as Iron, Iodine, Zinc, Vitamins A & D to staple foods such as rice, wheat, oil, milk and salt to improve their nutritional content. These nutrients may or may not have been originally present in the food before processing or may have been lost during processing. Fig: Food fortification in India Importance of food fortification The debate on food security in India, till not very long ago, revolved around making available adequate quantities of produce to feed our vast population. However, of late, the emphasis has started shifting from quantity to quality, signaling a paradigm shift in the understanding, if not definition, of “food security”.

  1. Deficiency of micronutrients or micronutrient malnutrition, also known as hidden hunger, is a serious health risk. 
  2. Access to safe and nutritious food is a must and sometimes due to lack of consumption of a balanced diet, lack variety in the diet or unavailability of food one does not get adequate micronutrients.
  3.  Often, there is a considerable loss of nutrients during the processing of food as well. 

One of the strategies to address this problem is the fortification of food. This method complements other ways to improve nutrition such as diversification of diet and supplementation of food. Case of India India has a very high burden of micronutrient deficiencies caused by Vitamin A, Iodine, Iron and Folic Acid leading to Night Blindness, Goitre, Anaemia and various birth defects. According to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS)- 4

  1. 35.7 percent of children below five years are underweight
  2. 38.4 percent are stunted and 21 percent are wasted in the country

The Economist Intelligence Unit with the Italy-based Barilla Centre for Food & Nutrition has ranked India 63rd among 67 countries in terms of micronutrient deficiency prevalence, with only Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Ghana and Kenya faring worse. A recent World Bank study has pointed out that more than 70% of Indian children under five are deficient in vitamin D (essential for calcium absorption and strong bones) and 57% lack adequate levels of vitamin A (necessary for vision and body immunity). Fortification is a globally proven intervention to address the much prevalent micronutrient deficiencies in the population. Milk fortification in India Whether milk a better alternative to address micronutrient deficiencies?

  1. The quantity question in milk has since long been addressed. It is the country’s largest “crop” today, both by volume and value. India is, moreover, the global leader in milk production by miles, with it's daily per capita availability, at 375 grams, also above the world average. 
  2. Qualitatively, too, it is a wholesome food containing animal protein, fat, carbohydrates, calories, and sugar as well as calcium, phosphorus and vitamin A, D, B2 and B12.
  3. Being a universally consumed food – in India, vegetarianism does not extend to veganism — milk also offers itself as a natural vehicle for a nationwide food fortification programme that can effectively address the problem of under-nutrition amongst large sections of our masses. 
  4. The potential is even more given the high-income elasticity of demand for milk in the lower quintiles and deciles: Since their consumption of it would grow relatively faster than others with increased incomes, why not pack added nutrition into an already-nutritious food?

There is merit in some of these concerns

  1. Random fortification may not only create nutrient imbalances but even result in deceptive or misleading claims by manufacturers.
  2. Critics of fortification also raise issues relating to costs: While only 3-4 paise per liter, the amounts may not be small when multiplied by the sheer volumes sold each day.
  3. Not for nothing that questions get asked whether there are business interests lurking behind the curtain of the campaign for food fortification, starting with milk. 
  4. Also, where does this leave the primary producer? He/she is, after all, getting nothing out of the higher price that the consumer is now paying for food with supposedly enhanced nutritional value.
  5. While fortification might be a well-intentioned programme, the country’s largest producers’ cooperative and milk marketer staying out does little to help the cause. 
  6. Organised dairies, as it is, handle barely a quarter of India’s total milk production and, even within that, more than a quarter is procured and marketed by Amul.
  7.  That being the case, the programme’s effectiveness becomes questionable. FSSAI’s statements that food fortification is “voluntary” and akin to a “three-legged race”, wherein it would be scaled up in stages before becoming mandatory, isn’t helpful either.

Way forward

  1. It would be better than FSSAI and NDDB get all stakeholders on board in order to make the fortification programme a success. Amul’s position in favour of “natural fortification” deserves serious consideration. 
  2. The dairy giant should, at the least, be encouraged to spell out its suggestions in tangible terms. Otherwise, the programme is the danger of falling by the wayside and confirming George Bernard Shaw’s observation that “hell is paved with good intentions, not with bad ones.”

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