In-depth

What's on the menu?

Updated Nov 09, 2017 11:03am

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A farmer harvests bottle gourd (loki) at a farm in Peshawar | Shahbaz Butt, White Star
A farmer harvests bottle gourd (loki) at a farm in Peshawar | Shahbaz Butt, White Star

Tension is high at a slaughterhouse in Lahore — as high as the temperature at noon on this day in May this year. A Punjab Food Authority (PFA) team is inspecting its premises and is most likely to stop its operations.

This is not the first time that the slaughterhouse is being scrutinised. It was first raided six months ago towards the end of 2016. The PFA then sealed it and gave its management some time to improve its working conditions. They met the conditions and were allowed to resume work.

The environment at the slaughterhouse, located in Harbanspura, a working-class neighbourhood on the eastern edge of the city, seems to have deteriorated again.

A steel table stands next to a window in its main processing area. On the other side of the window, grown chickens are sitting in an uncovered pen. A man is slaughtering them there and handing them through the window to those working at the table, who in turn place the slaughtered chickens upside down in big steel funnels. Blood drips through the funnels on to a metal tray below, congealing there, attracting flies and giving off a strong odour. The table is caked with dried blood.

Some other men line steel tables on the other side of the room. They are ripping feathers off the birds and removing their intestines, lungs and other organs. They chuck the innards and chopped-off feet and heads of the chickens into plastic baskets placed next to them. Feathers and entrails litter the floor and blood stains the surface of the tables which are also used to pile up meat.

The sight does not please Farhan Aslam, the PFA’s deputy director of operations. The presence of blood next to meat violates the government’s guidelines, he explains to Rana Sajid, a somewhat stocky, middle-aged man who works as a manager at the slaughterhouse. Aslam then asks how many times the floor and tables are cleaned. They are washed every evening, once work for the day is over, Sajid says.

In an adjoining room, flies buzz around meat kept in plastic baskets. A PFA official fishes through a basket placed at a nearby area in the slaughterhouse and finds two breast pieces covered with blood clots. They come from a wounded chicken that should not have been cleared for processing. Aslam notices that many of the slaughterhouse employees performing such tasks as trimming fat off the chickens, cutting them into pieces and washing them, are not wearing the mandatory gloves and hairnets.

He has already noted some other problems. The management has not made it mandatory for people entering the slaughterhouse to sanitise their hands, wear special work shoes or don a work overall. There is no resident veterinarian or on-site laboratory to check the birds for diseases and wounds before they are slaughtered and processed.

Aslam orders his subordinates to seal the slaughterhouse. His junior officials tell the slaughterhouse employees to put processed and unprocessed meat in bright plastic buckets and then leave the premises. An hour and a half after the arrival of the PFA team, all exit and entry doors have been locked and marked with blue wires carrying a PFA seal. They can only be removed under orders from the PFA’s director general.

Surrounded by the slaughterhouse employees, Sajid looks distressed. He talks urgently on the phone with his superiors and discusses the situation with the employees in a hushed tone. He also tries to argue with the PFA staff. “These are not sealing conditions,” he protests. “This is a slaughterhouse, not a factory … [the presence of] blood here is inevitable.”

Aslam is unmoved. “I can’t allow these conditions.”

Men spraying lychee trees with pesticide using handheld pumps | Tariq Mahmood, White Star
Men spraying lychee trees with pesticide using handheld pumps | Tariq Mahmood, White Star

Zahid Iftikhar raises chickens on a 2.75-acre compound in Noori Abad, about 100 kilometres to the northeast of Karachi. His poultry farm has four sheds in two double-storey buildings, with a combined covered area of 21,150 square feet. It also houses a small office building and living quarters for his 26 employees.

Iftikhar buys one-day-old broiler chicks from hatcheries run by a leading chicken processing company based in Karachi. They have been produced through genetically-selective breeding that allows them to put on huge muscle mass in a short span of time. They gain weight rapidly, between 100 and 110 grammes each day towards the end of their growth cycle, and reach maturity within 35 days if reared in a controlled environment.

Iftikhar’s farm has automated operations. Metal pipes running through the length of its sheds, a few inches above the floor, take feed and water to orange and yellow plastic bowls suspended just above the floor. The bowls – one reserved for feed and the other for water – are attached to the pipes in alternative rows and receive supplies automatically at regular intervals. A meter and an electric panel are installed in a room just at the entrance of each shed. They monitor and automatically regulate temperature inside by adjusting the speed of nine industrial-sized ventilating fans and giving the chickens an occasional quick cold shower, especially during summers, through sprinklers. Natural light peers faintly into the sheds through slanted crevices in the walls. To illuminate the dim sheds, electric bulbs are kept on 22 hours a day.

The farm has the capacity to house 120,000 chickens. On this early September day, its sheds are at maximum capacity, each containing 30,000 chickens. They are barely moving except to shuffle closer to the feed and water. Their occasional clucks are drowned out by the noise of the fans.

Any visitors to the farm must first change into clothes provided to them, put on plastic slippers and dip their feet in a shallow pool of water before entering the sheds. These precautions are taken to minimise the birds’ exposure to any diseases or germs that people coming from the outside may bring.

Attendants take rounds in the sheds throughout the day to monitor the chickens for signs of sickness among them. Any birds that appear lethargic or unwell are quarantined in a small, partitioned area. Vaccines mixed in water are administered via sprays. Moreover, the chickens are vaccinated three times during their lifetime. These vaccines, mixed in their feed, immunise them against disease.

Entire flocks of tens of thousands of birds can die within days if a disease breaks out among them.

Ziauddin Gabol’s poultry farm is situated in Jollab Goth, about an hour and a half’s drive outside Karachi on the motorway that leads to Hyderabad. It is housed in a rectangular shed with a thatched roof and an iron net running where its walls should have been. Surrounded by low, sandy hills dotted with shrubbery, it is at some distance from a posh housing scheme coming up in the area.

Inside the shed, 3,500 white chicks, all 21 days old, cover a dirt floor. They are more active than those at Iftikhar’s farm. The air is filled with their constant clucking as they waddle around. Some of them pick at feed from metal feeders placed on the floor or suspended from the rafters. Plastic water containers are also placed in rows along the length of the shed. Workers manually fill the feeders and containers throughout the day. Natural light illuminates the shed during the day. Bulbs hanging from the low ceiling give the chickens light at night.

The birds take longer to reach full maturity in this ‘open’ shed – growing to their maximum weight in 47 days – than they do in a ‘controlled’ shed.

The chickens are shipped to markets usually after they weigh about two kilogrammes. Transported in the back of trucks in metal pens, most of them are sent to butcher shops in cities, towns and villages where they are slaughtered and sold the same day. Others are sent to slaughterhouses which could be small like the one the PFA sealed in Lahore, or huge — usually owned by large national-level firms such as K&N’s and the Big Bird Group. After the chickens are slaughtered, processed and packaged in plastic containers, they are frozen and sent to grocery stores.

The journey of a chicken from a hatchery to a dinner table is quite well known, yet the poultry industry often attracts negative attention.

Farmland in Chak Jhumra, Punjab | Ayesha binte Rashid
Farmland in Chak Jhumra, Punjab | Ayesha binte Rashid

In December 2016, the Aga Khan University Hospital (AKUH) released the findings of a two-year research study at a seminar in Karachi. The researchers claimed the chicken samples they tested carried levels of arsenic and lead above those internationally accepted for human consumption. The media went into a frenzy, decrying chicken as a harmful meat. Though Dr Zafar Fatmi, who lead the AKUH study, later explained in an interview that the chicken could have been contaminated during cooking (perhaps due to the utensils or water used in its preparation), but the damage had been done. Television talk shows and news reports continued to talk about the presence of harmful substances in chicken even months later.

Some of the bad press, however, seems to have a solid basis.

Mohsin Bhatti, a Lahore-based television reporter and a member of the government-supported Punjab Consumer Protection Council, points to a practice common in poultry markets: the thandee bolee or dead chicken auction that helps butchers and eateries purchase dead chickens at throwaway prices. Every day, he says, about 4,000 trucks bring chickens into Lahore. These trucks do not protect the birds from sunshine, wind and rain. Being sensitive to uncontrolled environments, many chickens expire while being transported. On average, he estimates, 15-20 chickens die in each truck. These dead chickens are then auctioned for as low as 35 rupees per kilogramme.

Noorul Amin Mengal, director general of the PFA, admits to knowing about the sale of dead chickens in Lahore. His staff has raided shops where dead chickens were being sold, he says.

The other regular subject of speculation and criticism is the feed used in poultry farming.

In February 2017, Aamir Sultan Cheema, a member of the Punjab Assembly, sought a ban on the import of chicken feed from India, alleging that the Indian feed carried pork. Media and consumer associations promptly picked up the issue.

Perhaps more damning, Bhatti claims that blood collected from slaughterhouses, bones, fish remains, and even the carcasses of dead street animals and leather from discarded shoes are being used in chicken feed production. Some of this was first disclosed by the daily Dawn as far back as 2008 but the use of these ingredients has continued unchecked.

Sometimes even more bizarre allegations emerge: a 44-year-old vegetable farmer in Faisalabad claims to know factories that collect glass bottles and discarded glass products to grind them into a powder which, he alleges, they sell to chicken feed manufacturers. A food expert in Faisalabad is suspicious of the odour emitted from feed factories. This smell, he claims, comes from the residue of chicken processing – offal, blood and feathers – that is used in feed manufactured at these factories. The chickens are administered prophylactic antibiotics to counter the possible medical effects of these ingredients, he further alleges. These drugs keep the birds alive but leave them with little energy to move around, he says.

Even when the chickens are fed on high-quality feed, they can still retain antibiotics administered to them. People who consume meat containing antibiotic residue may develop decreased sensitivity to antibiotics, allergic reactions and cell mutation, according to a study carried out by Abasyn University, Peshawar.

The exponentially high growth rate of broiler chickens also creates fears that they may have been given growth hormones. Their tame movements and The exponentially high growth rate of broiler chickens also creates fears that they may have been given growth hormones. Their tame movements and lethargic behaviour are seen as evidence that they are pumped with steroids and growth hormones that make them unnaturally large but devoid of any vitality.

Khalil Sattar’s first foray into the poultry business came at the age of five when he would steal eggs laid by chickens reared in his family home in Delhi and sell them to neighbours. As a college student, his interest in poultry was further strengthened when he read a book about freedom from hunger. Its author talked about broiler production as a way to overcome food shortages.

Sattar recalls how Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) set up a poultry farm in the 1960s in Karachi’s Landhi area to rear chickens for its in-flight kitchen. The farm also had a hatchery set up in collaboration with a Canadian company, Shaver Poultry Breeding Farms. This was Pakistan’s first commercial hatchery for broiler chickens and Sattar was one of its customers.

He contacted a sales manager at the hatchery and expressed interest in buying the newly-hatched chicks to set up a poultry farm of his own. The manager guided him on how to convert unused warehouses at his family’s cooking oil factory in Karachi’s Jodia Bazaar into controlled environment sheds. Soon Sattar received his first consignment of 1,000 day-old chicks. They did not fare well. A day later, 350 of them were burnt alive in an accident at his shed.

Undeterred, Sattar fixed the shed and continued to rear broilers. His farm grew to house 200,000 chickens, and as his business expanded he started thinking of building his own slaughtering and processing facilities. This is how K&N’s – one of the largest poultry firms in Pakistan – was born.

In those early days in the 1960s, PIA/Shaver, K&N’s and Sunshine Poultry were the only players in the controlled shed poultry business, and Lever Brothers was the only company producing chicken feed. There was no poultry-related expertise in the country. Vaccines and medicine were not easily available. Yet, poultry continued to grow at an average annual rate of eight per cent for the next few decades. Today, at least 25,000 commercial poultry farms, together producing 1.4 billion broiler chickens a year, and 150 feed mills, are operating in Pakistan. K&N’s alone has about 36 controlled environment farms that can raise about three million birds at a time.

Speaking from his 52 years of experience in poultry farming, Sattar dismisses most drawing room talk of broiler chickens being harmful to human health as nonsense.

Chickens being sprayed with water in Peshawar to protect them from the heat during transportation | Abdul Majeed Goraya, White Star
Chickens being sprayed with water in Peshawar to protect them from the heat during transportation | Abdul Majeed Goraya, White Star

“My chickens eat a better diet than my children do,” he asserts and scoffs at those who criticise the use of dead fish in chicken feed. “Fish is a very good source of nutrition for chickens,” he says. “[But] obviously you can’t feed them live fish. You have to use dead fish.” Fish-based feed, however, is hardly being used in Pakistan because fish is available only in limited quantities in local markets.

Some other chicken feed ingredients, Sattar says, sound stranger than they actually are. The meat and bones from dead livestock are used abundantly in chicken feed even in the United States and other developed countries, he argues. The two ingredients are thoroughly cooked before they are added to chicken feed, he explains. Cooked and dehydrated poultry blood, in his words, is another “fantastic product” to use in feed. Even using discarded leather is not as much an abomination as people think it is. Feed manufacturers process it to get cellulose. That cellulose is a good source of protein for chickens, he says.

The Pakistan Poultry Association, which he heads these days, always wanted to use soybean in chicken feed instead of meat-based ingredients, he says, and had lobbied the government for years to have the ban on soybean imports overturned. The authorities resisted for a very long time, according to Sattar. Now that there is no ban on its import, some poultry companies have stopped using animal meat and bones.

Any ingredients that do not provide nutrition to the chickens will only add to costs for feed manufacturers and farmers, Sattar says. Though some local feed manufacturers still try to cheat the farmers by putting unnecessary and substandard ingredients in their feed, ultimately they bear the consequences because they lose business rapidly in what is a very competitive market, he adds.

He insists that there is “absolutely zero” use of hormones in poultry in Pakistan. The size and weight of broilers is a result of genetics, nutrition and a carefully controlled environment, not of hormone injections, he says, and argues that hormones need to be administered regularly to be effective which makes them costly. Also, he argues, “Imagine the quantum [of hormones] that would be imported” to inject into millions of birds being reared in the country. The government would instantly know who was importing them and why, he insists. “You can’t hide these things.”

Sattar admits that the use of antibiotics in poultry farming is common and many poultry farmers ignore the need to stop all medicine and antibiotics administered to the chickens at least 10 days before they are slaughtered. But a farmer will do everything to protect his investment if his poultry is struck with a disease before it is sent for slaughter — even if that means giving medicine to the chickens well into the last week of their life cycle, he says. Such practices allow residual medicine in the meat to reach a consumer’s dinner table.

To rid the market of sick birds dumped at unregulated butcheries, slaughterhouses and dead chicken auctions, he suggests the government should provide farmers with compensation to guarantee that they properly discard the diseased and dead birds. Otherwise, he says, farmers will always try to sell them to minimise their losses.

Sattar points out that there has been a shift in recent years from antibiotics to probiotics and prebiotics. He, however, agrees it is not because farmers have become sensible about the harmful effects of antibiotics but because these new drugs are more effective in fighting diseases and are also cost efficient.

The government’s failure to monitor, regulate and direct the poultry industry is obvious. Even though local governments have food inspectors in many areas and Karachi has a government-run food testing laboratory (though it often remains non-functional), their mandate and authority are not well-defined. The laws governing their work are archaic and do not cover large parts of rapidly changing practices of food-related industries and markets.

The PFA, set up in 2011 under a law passed by the Punjab Assembly, is the only government entity with specific power to monitor and regulate the processing, supply and sale of food products, but it does not have the capacity to oversee a market catering to the 110 million people living in Punjab. For one, it operates in only 17 of the province’s 36 districts. Until recently, it did not have food scientists and technologists who could test various food products. They have only been hired during the last year or so. Given these constraints, its role has been largely limited to raiding butcher shops and slaughterhouses.

Sattar calls the PFA “a pain” for creating what he deems unnecessary, negative hype about poultry. Its role should be to bring about improvement rather than to destroy brand image, he says.

Long stretches of the highway that links Lahore with Sheikhupura are flanked by various crops in different stages of sowing and harvesting in May this year. Maize stands in crowded rows, three months into its life cycle, sprouting tassels that will soon turn into corncobs. Four-month-old sugarcane plants stand knee high. Large tracts of land bear signs of a very recent wheat harvest. New crops have already been sown in places where wheat stood only days ago. The land here is fertile and well irrigated by a number of canals passing through the area.

It looks odd that the highway is also dotted with numerous factories and plants, producing goods as diverse as chemicals, glass, tiles, carpets, shoes, dairy products and tractors. Lush crops stand next to smoke-emitting industries that also drain their effluents into nearby fields. No publicly known studies exist on the health hazards caused by such proximity between food crops and potentially poisonous industrial emissions and waste. Even if they do exist, there is little information about their findings, let alone any corrective measures they may have elicited.

Kiran Khalid, a 30-something graduate from the University of Agriculture Faisalabad (UAF), knows a few relatively minor stories about food contamination. She shares them with a visitor from Karachi as the two sit on charpoys under the shade of a neem tree at her father’s farmhouse near Chak Jhumra town in Faisalabad district. One of the most bizarre food products she has heard about is cabbage made of plastic, from China. She is told that it is being sold in local markets.

Broiler chickens at Ziauddin Gabol’s  open shed poultry farm in Jollab Goth, Sindh | Ayesha binte Rashid
Broiler chickens at Ziauddin Gabol’s open shed poultry farm in Jollab Goth, Sindh | Ayesha binte Rashid

A similar story recently circulated in the local media about the import of a rice variety from Southeast Asia. It is not actually rice but plastic shaped like rice grain, media reports claimed. Food manufacturers and traders reject these stories as rumours, claiming that plastic costs more to produce than both cabbage and rice, and hence is not economically viable to use in food production.

Sohail Shakoor, who works in his home town of Renala Khurd in Okara district as a manager at an animal farm supported by a multinational dairy manufacturer, recalls an even stranger experience. He once bought strawberries from a street vendor. The fruit looked ripe but when he and his family consumed it, it left red colour around their mouths. The vendor had apparently sprayed colour on his strawberries to make them look good. YouTube featured a video in 2015 that showed something similar: a Pakistani vendor spraying lychees with red paint to hide green and off-white patches on their skin.

Apart from such evidence about the adulteration of food crops, vegetables and fruits, there is next to no sustained, systematic and collaborative research, or even documentation, on the various ways in which impurities, hazardous additives and harmful chemicals may be getting into our food chain.

Ahmad Hassan and his younger brothers own 600 acres of land across four villages in Depalpur tehsil of Okara district, an area known to be part of Punjab’s potato belt. Every year in late September, labourers till his land. They dig and overturn the soil multiple times, using a combination of manual labour and machinery. The land must be ready by October when temperatures drop to below 30 degrees centigrade and the weather turns suitable for the sowing of potatoes.

A major part of these preparations is mixing fertilisers into the soil. Sometimes this is done by hand, other times by a mechanical drill. On occasion, fertilisers are put in porous barrels placed in waterways that irrigate the fields. Soon after the mixing is done, seeds are planted in rows.

In the good old days, a farmer would go home after sowing the seeds, hoping for the weather to stay clement so that his crop would grow well over the next four months. Not anymore.

Today’s farmers start worrying about their crop even before it is sown. They would want to select a seed variety that suits local soil and weather conditions, has a high yield per acre and is resistant to pest attacks and other afflictions. Farmers like Ahmad Hassan, who have large landholdings, prefer to use imported seeds, usually from Holland. Less resourceful growers use local varieties.

Soon after it sprouts, potato crop becomes vulnerable to multiple diseases, such as early blight and late blight, that can leave it withered with fungi. Late blight takes only three to four days to wreak havoc in an entire area, says Ahmad Hassan. Potato plants are also prone to attack by mites, weeds and other pests.

As soon as their crop begins to show symptoms of a certain ailment, farmers rush into action. They procure various chemicals from the market and immediately spray them on the plants. In theory, the amount of the chemical used should be determined by its potency. In practice, overdose is rampant.

Farmers lack awareness and the government often fails to inform them about the proper usage of these potentially hazardous chemicals. Their priority is to ensure the survival of their crop. Often, they seek advice on how and how much to use from the shopkeepers who sell the chemicals. In most cases, farmers make a decision on their own, usually going by the quantities other farmers in the area are using. Farmers are also generally unsure about the frequency of the chemical sprays their crops need. Some of them end up spraying chemicals after every eight days when they should not be used more than eight times during the crop’s whole life cycle.

The educated ones among them seem to know that these practices could be harmful not just for their crops but also for human health. If you cover your crop with sprays then, of course, you will adulterate the produce instead of giving the plants resistance against diseases, says Ahmad Hassan. “It is slow poison after all,” says another farmer in Depalpur.

A farmer using chemicals only knows what the label on the bottle tells him — and that too if he is literate. Often, he does not realise that his produce can retain some of the pesticides and herbicides he is using and may harm the health of people who will consume it. “Either the state or those manufacturing these chemicals really know what their side effects are,” Ahmad Hassan says.

This lack of awareness leads many Pakistani farmers to use agrochemicals that are banned elsewhere in the world. Carbofuran is one example. It is most commonly used on maize and is known to induce vomiting, abdominal cramps, increased blood pressure and even death if one is exposed to high doses. Even in small quantities, it can be poisonous for mammals. The use of carbofuran in agriculture was banned by the European Union in 2008. A year later, the United States banned the sale of food products containing carbofuran residue.

The sale of such substances, indeed, shows just how poorly the market for agrochemicals is regulated in Pakistan. Local sellers of pesticides and herbicides, for instance, import generic chemicals, repackage them and sell them at prices that are lower than those charged by multinational firms for their internationally known brands. These locally packaged chemicals undergo no quality control. Their dose is not decided on the basis of scientific research conducted locally. Instead, it is determined through the extrapolation of information available in other countries.

Most of the potentially negative effects of agrochemicals on human health can be averted by a simple technique — ensuring that sufficient time passes before a crop sprayed with chemicals is harvested and consumed. Potato crop takes long enough from the field to the dinner table to have shed its chemical residue. At least one to two months pass between potato harvesting and its consumption, says Ahmad Hassan. Knowledgeable farmers add to this time gap by stopping chemical spray on their crop twenty days before it is reaped.

Men extract milk from cows and collect it in steel pails at a cattle shed in Bhains Colony, Karachi | Fahim Siddiqui, White Star
Men extract milk from cows and collect it in steel pails at a cattle shed in Bhains Colony, Karachi | Fahim Siddiqui, White Star

Less knowledgeable ones offer various reasons for not following such schedules.

Three of them are sitting in a small office next to a cold storage facility on the outskirts of Sahiwal city. They are talking about the connection between vegetables and agrochemicals and claim the bottles of pesticides they use do not carry instructions on when their spray on a crop should be stopped. One of them picks up a bottle from a table and turns it over to prove this point. The label states that the use of the chemical should be stopped at least seven days before the vegetable is harvested. He has been using the potion in the bottle for quite some time and yet has never cared to read this information before.

A farmer only knows what colour a chemical’s packaging is and what its brand name is, he says by way of defence. If you ask him whether he knows anything else about the chemicals he is using, he will say that he does not understand the words printed on the packages, says one of them.

This type of ignorance can be dangerous for the farmers themselves. They could be exposing themselves to health hazards even while spraying the chemicals through hand-operated pumps attached to small cylinders that can be worn like backpacks — a method mostly used by small farmers since they do not have access to more sophisticated tools. Research has shown that pesticides and herbicides can cause respiratory and neurological problems, as well as cancer, among those spraying them if precautions are not taken during the process. According to the World Health Organization, over 250,000 deaths occur every year worldwide due to pesticide poisoning.

Mohammad Amir Bajwa’s mother has been diagnosed with cancer. Recently his uncle has also been diagnosed with cancer. He often wonders if this is some sort of karma. Bajwa and his uncle own over 100 acres of land in Chak Jhumra and grow maize, sugarcane and a variety of vegetables like tomatoes, onions, eggplant, luffa and green chilies. He is conflicted about the excessive use of agrochemicals on his lands, especially after a doctor told his uncle that pesticides are a leading cause of cancer. He knows labourers on his farm spray vegetable plants with pesticides even during their harvesting period.

A vegetable sprayed with chemicals in the afternoon could be picked the next morning and sent to the market, ending up in someone’s dinner by the same evening. Only the previous day, he got into an argument with some labourers picking vegetables at his farm. They wanted to spray a product called Roundup on the onion crop. A weed killer containing glyphosate, Roundup removes onions leaves, thus making harvesting easier. It is so potent that its excess, even by a small amount, can render land unusable for up to six months, he says. The onions that the workers wanted harvested with help from this highly hazardous compound would end up in the market the next day. Bajwa somehow managed to talk them out of using the chemical.

On a hot day in May this year, he is standing on the periphery of a sugarcane field as two men work through the stalks, spraying them with chemicals from cylinders on their backs. According to Bajwa, blue vitriol, commonly known as neela thotha, is one of the very common pesticides used on sugarcane crop. Blue vitriol is fungicide that has copper sulphate as its active ingredient. It is “one of the worst poisons” according to Bajwa, and was traditionally used both as an insecticide in homes and a chemical of choice for those wishing to commit suicide. Consuming even a small amount of it (about a gramme) can cause skin irritation, vomiting and diarrhoea. Long-term exposure can lead to serious liver and kidney problems.

Traces of blue vitriol stay in sugarcane juice for nearly six months, says Bajwa. Farmers sometimes continue using it even when only three months are left to the harvest. Such contaminated sugarcane can potentially lead to the production of contaminated sugar.

Bajwa blames the government and the manufacturers of pesticides and herbicides for what he calls a systemic problem. The government does not train farmers on the effective and scientific use of agrochemicals, he says. It also does not regulate the market for agrochemicals.

Lack of investment in agricultural technology, in the meanwhile, has made the use of these chemicals a necessity — something that their manufacturers and sellers manipulate and exploit for profit. These multibillion dollar industries, says Bajwa, have created an agricultural economy in which one simply has no option but to use inorganic chemicals.

Though locally conducted, large-scale scientific studies on the hazards of these chemicals are next to non-existent, some Pakistani scientists have taken the initiative to document the likely impacts of chemical-heavy farming practices on human health.

Dr Ahmad Nawaz, an assistant professor at the University of Agriculture Faisalabad (UAF), is involved in a research project looking into the presence of pesticide residue in agricultural produce in Punjab. The researchers working on the project have collected produce samples from five major markets – in such big cities as Bahawalpur, Faisalabad, Lahore and Rawalpindi – to compare their quantity of pesticide residue with internationally accepted limits. Their preliminary research has already shown something dangerous: all the samples they have gathered so far are found to be contaminated, though the degree of their contamination is yet to be determined.

In an earlier project that Nawaz carried out as part of his doctoral research at Paul Sabatier University in France, he explored the effects of pesticides on the human liver. Even when certain chemicals seemed to do no harm to the human liver when used separately, he found that their combination with other pesticides increased liver cell mortality by 80 per cent.

M Arif | White Star
M Arif | White Star

But Dr Sohail Ahmed, a professor of entomology, or the study of insects, also at UAF, urges caution in evaluating the results of such lab-based studies since their findings, attained in controlled environments, may not apply to real-life situations. He also does not support condemning all food crops grown with the help of agrochemicals as contaminated and poisonous. There are many public misconceptions about the harmfulness of pesticide residue in agricultural produce, he says. The question is how much of a daily intake of this residue is too much for the human body, he adds. There have been no studies in Pakistan so far that could come up with an exact measure.

Ahmed recalls attending a conference of agricultural scientists from Punjab on May 5 this year. During the conference, researchers from the Ayub Agricultural Research Institute in Faisalabad quoted a recent study which found that 23 per cent of fruit and vegetable samples tested during a study carried pesticide residues above the maximum levels recommended by international food agencies. The study claimed that pesticide residue persisted in 13 per cent of the samples even after they had been cooked. Though the research is yet to be published and peer-reviewed, Ahmed says, its findings have already become general knowledge. Even the literature and the data that back it up are not available for public scrutiny.

He finds himself disagreeing with the study’s findings. One chemical mentioned in the study cannot possibly persist at the temperatures at which food is cooked in our part of the world, he says.

Bhains Colony, on the eastern edge of Karachi, is home to thousands of large compounds where hundreds of thousands of cows and buffaloes are kept. The narrow, litter-strewn streets leading to these compounds are dotted with puddles of stagnating water, attracting flies. Heaps of trash, including discarded shopping bags, line pathways all over the locality.

One must first walk across a whole compound full of dung and compost to get to a thatched roof shed at its far end. Inside the shed, around 40 animals stand tied to iron pegs. The air is thick with flies and the stench of dung and animal urine is pervasive. The floor is caked with refuse – a noxious, filthy mixture of animal waste and water. A man is shoveling a pile of dung to only a few inches from where it was before.

This is Muhammad Mansha’s farm, one of the many thousands that supply milk to the residents of Karachi.

Mansha’s employees do not wash their hands or the animals’ udders before milking. Milk is extracted in steel buckets and is left open to flies that seem to have made the shed their home. Buckets are emptied into an open steel tub exposed to rainwater dripping through the thatched roof. Dodhis, or travelling milk collectors, take milk from Mansha’s shed every day and sell it to shops in different parts of Karachi from where it makes its way into meals, tea, sweets and bakery goods.

Lack of hygiene, however, pales in comparison to the treatment that animals receive at farms in Bhains Colony.

At 4:00pm, one of Mansha’s employees fills a used syringe from a bottle of oxytocin, a hormone linked to childbirth and breast feeding. He walks up to a cow, pricks it in the rump and injects the drug into her body. Less than five minutes later, he places a bucket under the cow and fills it with milk very quickly — thanks to the oxytocin. He repeats the process with the next animal, and then the next.

Muhammad Zubair Ahmed, a resident of Sahiwal who has been working in the dairy industry for 17 years and serves as a production manager at the Engro Foods’ milk plant in his native city, accuses cattle shed owners in Karachi of “carrying out injustices” in the name of livestock rearing. According to him, most of the animals in Karachi’s cattle sheds are purchased from three main markets in Punjab – Okara, Arifwala and Chichawatni – and are exploited as merely a “production unit”.

Some effects of the hormonal injections are easily detectable. Animals at Mansha’s shed look emaciated even though they do not seem to have a shortage of feed. Their skin hangs down from bones that jut out sharply.

The other effects appear over time. Oxytocin, for example, increases an animal’s body temperature by a couple of degrees, explains reporter and member of the Punjab Consumer Protection Council Mohsin Bhatti. If given frequently, it can induce a permanent fever in livestock. Consequently, Bhatti says, animals become vulnerable to udder infections that can contaminate their milk.

The other most used hormone is known as Recombinant Bovine Somatotropin (rBST). It is given to cows and buffaloes to enhance their milk production period from a natural nine months to an artificial 14 months. The practice is by no means specific to Bhains Colony and is followed in most parts of Punjab as well.

The use of rBST is banned in the European Union, Canada and India. Punjab’s provincial government, too, put a ban on it in 2015. Milk extracted by injecting rBST contains high traces of IGF-1, a protein hormone. According to the American Cancer Society, this hormone has been linked to the growth of cancerous cells in human body.

Everyday Sajjad Ashraf gets up early in the morning, well before sunrise. Between 4:00 am and 5:00 am, he and his employees milk about 30 buffaloes and cows at his cattle shed at Chak 125-RB, a small village in Faisalabad district. The animals are led to a place outside the shed where their milk is extracted by hand in steel pails. After the sun rises, a man arrives on a motorcycle. He pours milk into steel containers attached to his bike and takes it to a milk seller in a nearby town.

Dodhis like him are a common sight on roads linking Punjab’s cities and towns with nearby villages. They drive between farms throughout the day, collecting milk from farmers and taking it to retail-level sellers or milk collection centres in towns and cities.

A collection centre is generally situated at a central location accessible to many nearby villages. Some of them have a metal chiller where milk is stirred to a colder temperature so that it stays fresh longer. Mobile collection units are also quite common. These are small container trucks fitted with a chiller. These collection centres and collection vehicles supply milk to the manufacturers of dairy products, retail milk shops and bulk consumers of milk such as hotels, restaurants, food catering companies and sweet makers. This traditional supply chain of loose milk handles nearly 90 per cent of the 12-13 billion litres of milk consumed every year in Pakistan.

Cows munch on fodder at Nestle’s Sarsabz Farm in Renala Khurd, Punjab | Ayesha binte Rashid
Cows munch on fodder at Nestle’s Sarsabz Farm in Renala Khurd, Punjab | Ayesha binte Rashid

From a farmer’s pail to the consumer, the milk is tested only once, if at all, to determine its fat content and thereby its price. Not once is it checked for the presence of bacteria or any other substances that someone in the supply chain could have added to increase the quantity, thickness and even fat content of the milk. The only measure taken by shopkeepers and domestic consumers to remove additions or impurities is to heat milk on stoves for a considerable amount of time, a traditional pasteurisation technique.

Farmers, dodhis and milk sellers use a number of ways to increase the quantity of milk they can sell. Adding water to it is the most basic method. The use of ice to keep milk cold during transportation is also very common. This not only increases the quantity of milk, but may also contaminate it with bacteria and other hazardous substances found in the often untested water used to make the ice. Formaldehyde, commonly used to preserve dead bodies, is also added to milk to keep it fresh longer, according to Ali Hassan, a specialist on food safety and quality management at the National Institute of Food Sciences and Technology at UAF. Some farmers and dodhis put urea in milk to prevent it from curdling quickly.

Ali Hassan alleges that a lot of loose milk being sold in Pakistan also contains what he calls synthetic milk. He has come across cases in which talcum powder was mixed with glucose, water and vegetable oil as a source of fat to manufacture milk. Other chemicals used in this process include powdered whey and skimmed milk powder, often expired. A litre of ‘milk’ can be produced at a cost as low as 20 rupees through a combination of these substances, says Mohsin Bhatti.

Noorul Amin Mengal, the PFA’s director general, verifies that milk adulteration is widespread – almost universal – across Pakistan. For months, under his leadership, the PFA has been cracking down on the supply of substandard, adulterated milk to various cities in Punjab. On January 10 this year, the authority destroyed 800 litres of low quality milk in Lahore alone. On June 20, its officials seized and discarded more than 25,000 litres of milk in Lahore, Faisalabad and Multan.

But, as Mengal acknowledges, these crackdowns are not always effective in preventing milk adulteration. Even if a milkman clears a PFA checkpoint at the entrance to a city, he can easily mix something in the milk at his shop within the city. “He will put two glasses of water [in a litre of milk] right before delivering [it] to your house.”

A village near Renala Khurd town in Okara district houses a large farm that supplies milk to Nestle — the biggest among a number of large scale manufacturers of packaged dairy products in Pakistan (that together sell about 1.3 billion litres of milk every year). The farm has as many as 90 animals. Even on its leanest production day, usually in the summer, it produces 340 litres of milk.

Animals here are milked twice a day at 5:00 am and 5:00 pm in a parlour just outside the shed. Pipes made of food-grade rubber are attached to their udders to extract milk, which pools into white plastic buckets. It is then poured into a steel pail and, within 30 minutes of being extracted, is transferred to the on-farm chilling unit. A lorry arrives at the farm every morning. Its driver tests the chilled milk for its fat content, bacterial growth and contamination, and then transfers it to a tank attached to a chiller in his vehicle.

The cattle shed at this farm is a large, rectangular, white brick building that looks like an airplane hangar. A path runs down its middle. Cows and buffaloes stand on both sides of the path in large enclosures. They are licking salt blocks placed at regular intervals on the sides of the path. The salt helps to improve their digestion. Each enclosure has individual resting places for the animals in the back. It is designed to minimise contact between the animal’s refuse and its udder.

Dirt or dust that enters an animal’s udder contaminates the milk, says Sohail Shakoor, who manages a Nestle-linked model livestock farm near Renala Khurd. For 30 minutes after milking, the orifices of the udder remain open and vulnerable to disease if they come into contact with trash or animal waste. Milk extracted from an animal with an afflicted udder can contain pus and is unfit for human consumption, he explains.

Milk-producing animals are also vulnerable to consuming toxins if their feed is not monitored thoroughly. These toxins can transfer to milk and subsequently affect human health, says Shakoor. To rule this out, some large-scale dairy companies require farmers working with them to procure animal feed only from approved vendors and manufacturers.

To be able to sell milk to these companies, dairy farmers also need to ensure that all their animals are in good health. If an animal is sick or is being treated with antibiotics, its milk is not going to be accepted by the company. To avoid antibiotic residue in milk, Nestle will only begin to accept milk seven days after the medicine is stopped. The company discards an entire batch of milk if any medicine residue is found in it and farmers are not paid for it. It is even less tolerant of purposeful adulteration. If it finds a litre of water added to milk, it deducts the price of two litres of milk from the money to be paid to the guilty farmer.

This strict protocol is followed mostly at large farms, particularly at those model farms that companies like Nestle support with money and expert advice. Many small farms also follow most, if not all, these rules.

Shahbaz Khan owns one such small farm in a village near Renala Khurd. It is quite well-maintained. The shed at his farm is a rectulanger white structure supported by walls on three sides and marked by arches on the fourth. His animals get Nestle-approved feed but they do not have separate enclosures or resting places reserved for them. On a May day, five of them sit inside the shed, taking refuge from the summer heat, on a clean floor.

Every morning at 6:00 am, Shahbaz Khan leads each animal through a metal gate to an area next to the shed where it is milked by hand. This ritual is repeated in the evening at 6:00 pm. The farm has no chiller of its own. He ensures the milk stays fresh and free of any bacterial growth before a chiller truck arrives to collect it.

But company-devised rules are sometimes flouted at smaller farms that do not always maintain high levels of hygiene and feed control. No company, no matter how resourceful, can possibly monitor these hundreds of thousands of suppliers spread across different parts of Punjab.

Such small suppliers can be found anywhere in the province. One of them operates about half an hour’s drive from Sahiwal city, and provides milk to Nestle. His farm is much dirtier than any of the model farms the company eagerly showcases to the media. The shed is littered with heaps of dung and on its slippery, dirty floor lie empty plastic barrels that once carried chemicals – in theory, Nestle has banned their use as milk containers – alongside the steel buckets that the company recommends for carrying milk.

Nestle’s milk collection centre in Chak Gagga, near Pattoki town in Punjab’s Kasur district, is located on a dirt road that winds through fields and mud-brick houses. Its one-room rectangular structure houses a metal chiller and a counter stocked with test tubes, jars and small machines to test milk. Between 300 and 500 litres of milk are collected here daily. Thousands of such collection centres are spread across central Punjab as well as in many parts of south Punjab.

Farmers bring their milk to the centre in covered, steel containers. Before accepting it, a worker at the centre performs an organoleptic test on the milk — he smells it, tastes it and adjudges its colour and thickness. The second test performed on milk determines its fat content. This test also looks for traces of water and bacterial contamination. If milk is found to be contaminated, it is coloured with dye so that it cannot be sold to other buyers. In the last round, milk samples are put in small bottles and tagged with unique codes representing each batch they are taken from. The codes help the company trace bad milk back to the farmer who brought it to the centre.

Milk collected at the centre is poured into a chiller to cool it down to four degrees centigrade or even lower. The temperature is maintained until a lorry arrives to pick milk up. Before its transfer to the chiller on the lorry, the milk is again tested for its smell, taste, colour and thickness.

Nestle’s plant, about an hour’s drive west of Lahore, is built over 63.5 acres of land off a highway. It is a maze of rectangular buildings and silos. Metal pipes connect different parts of the plant with each other. The premises also houses laboratories and administrative buildings. Workers wearing laboratory coats and oversized safety boots can be seen walking among its various buildings. At the entrance of every processing area, visitors and workers must thoroughly scrub and sanitize their hands and put on surgical gloves, hairnets and masks.

When a lorry carrying milk arrives at the plant, a sample is extracted from its contents and immediately tested for bacteria, contamination, composition, taste and smell. If the sample is found to be fine, milk is transferred to silos inside the processing area through food-grade rubber pipes. Samples taken during processing are sent to chemical and microbiology laboratories at the premises where they undergo several tests.

Once samples are cleared, milk is transferred to a filling plant via pipes that run high above the ground. Milk is then packaged in food-grade sterilised boxes manufactured by Tetra Pak. These are designed to prevent their contents from going bad. Samples are once again sent to various on-site quality assurance laboratories. After these samples have been cleared, milk cartons are sent to the market. During the whole process taking place within the plant, the milk is neither exposed to air nor sun, nor is it touched by human hands.

Other large-scale dairy manufacturers have similar collection and processing protocols. Yet, doubts and suspicions about the quality of milk have persisted.

In 2009, a Lahore-based lawyer, Barrister Zafarullah Khan, filed a petition at the Lahore High Court, complaining about the presence of harmful chemicals in the milk being sold by various national and international brands. Justice Saqib Nisar, who at the time was a high court judge, heard the case. On his orders, samples from eleven packaged milk brands were sent to Eurofins Scientific, a worldwide laboratory testing service headquartered in Luxembourg, that found traces of formaldehyde in all of them. The laboratory, however, declared all the samples fit for human consumption.

In July 2016, the same lawyer moved a petition at the Supreme Court of Pakistan, again raising questions about the quality of packaged branded milk. He contended that the chemicals being used in these brands were causing hepatitis C, cancer and other diseases. The case was heard by a two-judge bench that included Justice Nisar as well as Justice Iqbal Hameed ur Rehman.

The judges asked the Pakistan Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, the University of Veterinary and Animal Sciences, Lahore, and UAF to test samples of 17 packaged milk brands. These included seven brands – Nestle Milk Pak, Haleeb and Engro Foods’ Olpers among others – that use ultra-heat treatment (UHT) technology to heat milk above 135 degrees centigrade for one to two seconds so that bacteria and other contaminants are removed. The remaining ten brands use pasteurisation – a slower, low-heat method – to kill microbes and get rid of impurities.

The three institutions submitted their reports in December 2016. All seven UHT brands were found to be carrying traces of metals though only one of them (Haleeb) was declared unfit for human consumption. It had traces of sugarcane juice and formalin, a formaldehyde-based compound.

The reports on pasteurised milk brands were more damning. All their samples contained traces of sugarcane juice and formalin. Only one pasteurised brand was deemed fit for human consumption.


In response to the above article, Shahzad Ahmad, Head of Corporate Affairs at the Haleeb Foods Pakistan, sent the Herald the following letter:

In the Herald’s October 2017 story “What’s on the menu” it was mentioned that after being asked by the Supreme Court of Pakistan, the Pakistan Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, the University of Veterinary and Animal Sciences, Lahore and the University of Agriculture Faisalabad tested seven brands of ultra-high temperature (UHT) packaged milk, including Haleeb, and declared the brand unfit for human consumption. We wish to set the record straight regarding the latter.

A civil petition was filed in March 2017 regarding the quality of packaged milk and the Supreme Court of Pakistan further issued an order in which it stated that “As per the report submitted by the Punjab Food Authority (PFA), the milk produced/packaged by Haleeb Foods Ltd is fit for human consumption.” Haleeb milk has already been tested by SGS in December 2016, following rumours that it contained formalin and the report found the Haleeb milk sample to be free of formalin.


This was originally published in the Herald's October 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.


The writer is a staffer at the Herald.