Why Hawked Milk Can Save Your Baby
By Amos Omore
The author is a veterinary public health researcher attached to the SDP
In the Horizon section last week an article was headlined "Why hawked milk may kill your baby". The article, which appears to have been based on a scientific paper published in the Kenya Veterinary Journal, misrepresented certain facts and misinterpreted key information. The original scientific paper made reference to food poisoning from bacterial toxins that may occur when milk is not properly handled. The case reported in the paper was ill-health suffered by calves fed stale milk.
Bacteria such as Staphylococcus, the type of bacteria referred to in the article, easily multiply and produce toxins in foods of animal origin. It is these toxins that can lead to illness. Any stale food, be it soup, fish, meat or milk, can potentially lead to food poisoning. Isolating raw milk as the only potentially dangerous food is therefore misleading.
Boiling milk kills all germs
All food, particularly if uncooked, can be a source of infection. Which is why it is essential practice to ensure that all food is handled carefully to reduce bacterial contamination, and that any raw meat or milk is cooked to minimize the risk of bacterial infections. These precautions are the basis for Kenyans boiling raw milk before drinking it. Historical and scientific evidence shows that, after boiling, milk can actually save, not kill, your baby by providing essential nutrients. If boiling milk were ineffective as implied in the article, most Kenyans who each day buy raw milk, boil and consume it would be sick each day. And as we all know from our own day-to-day experience, we do not get sick from drinking chai with maziwa.
The Horizon article reported that boiling milk as usually practiced in Kenyan homes is less effective than pasteurization (industrial heat treatment at 72oC for 15 seconds) in killing bacteria that cause illnesses. Scientific evidence does not support that; boiling attains higher temperatures and takes much longer than 15 seconds to drop below 72oC. Like pasteurization, all harmful bacteria are killed in the process. Pasteurization is basically a method of heat treatment to kill harmful bacteria and to preserve flavour and certain micronutrients in milk at the same time, principally water soluble vitamins B and C. These vitamins would normally be lost on boiling but are in any case commonly available from alternative sources such as fruits and vegetables. The crucial Vitamin A and other micronutrients in milk are not destroyed by heat and remain intact, even after boiling. These are the nutrients that are key to child development, including cognitive development, but are often deficient in the diets of poor people who do not consume adequate amounts of foods such as meat. Most Kenyans boil milk and water together when making tea, whether the milk came from a packet or from a hawker, so those benefits from pasteurization are lost anyway.
New information available
New information about public health and milk marketing has recently become available from scientists from key research and development institutions in Kenya. They conducted comprehensive studies that included the laboratory analysis of hundreds of hawked and packed milk samples from randomly selected retailers and households in the country. The studies were conducted by the Smallholder Dairy (Research & Development) Project (SDP) and involved scientists from the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, University of NairobiÕs Department of Public Health, Pharmacology and Toxicology and the International Livestock Research Institute. The Kenya Dairy Board and Kenya Bureau of Standards also participated in the project.
Key findings of the SDP studies were:
- Nearly 90% milk sold in Kenya is never pasteurized. It is sold either directly to consumers by farmers, or passes to consumers through small-scale traders, including hawkers. Dairy farmers (most of whom are smallholders with one or two cows) therefore depend much more on these traders than on processors such as KCC. Training for smallholder farmers and milk traders is therefore required to ensure that milk is handled hygienically so that consumers receive good milk.
- Nearly 100% of consumers boiled milk before drinking it (mostly in the form of tea), thereby eliminating all risks from harmful bacteria. Public health threats from any bacterial contamination of hawked milk are therefore routinely eliminated by the consumer practice of boiling milk before consuming it.
- Only 10% of hawked milk tested was found to be adulterated with water; most cases occurred in the dry season when milk shortages occur. The widespread claims that all hawked milk is adulterated were therefore not supported by evidence.
- Consumers buy raw milk because it is cheaper by 20-50% than pasteurized milk in most parts of the country, and because consumers regard it as higher quality than standardized pasteurized milk.
- A major health risk that was identified was the large number (up to 15%) of both packed and raw milk samples that contained antibiotic residues. The negative implications of this are that over time, there is the possibility of the development of drug resistance, and that the common, cheap antibiotics that we use to treat various ailments will no longer be effective. And that means resorting to new and more expensive antibiotics for treatment. This is a scenario that should certainly be avoided, especially for a poor country such as Kenya. Again training is required, particularly of dairy farmers and veterinary assistants and drug suppliers.
Legislation needs review
Current legislation for the dairy industry that is used for regulating the sale of raw milk dates back to the 1950s, when dairy farming and marketing in urban areas in Kenya was dominated by large-scale European settler farmers and KCC. The situation is now completely different and demands both appropriate legislation that is more inclusive and a concerted training programme to ensure hygienic milk production and marketing practices.
The researchers rightly point out that the competition amongst alternative milk market channels in a liberalized Kenya should be fought on the basis of both price and quality, and not on false perceptions of health threats from consuming milk. It is important for the health and development of Kenyan children that they are encouraged to drink milk, and more of it, contributing to an adequate intake of micronutrients, protein and energy. Your baby will be much safer consuming boiled hawked milk than not consuming milk at all - the choice that prices and buying power dictate for many Kenyans.
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