Headed by Justice KS Radhakrishnan, the bench has required state governments three weeks to provide detailed affidavits on the steps they are taking to tackle milk adulteration, and urged them to make it an offence punishable by up to life imprisonment, as has already been done in Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Odisha.
The judges also called out Uttar Pradesh’s government for not prosecuting those suspected of adulterating milk and called for details of the pending cases on the issue in the state.
The bench was ruling on a public interest litigation that had sought the Supreme Court’s direction to state governments to stop the practice of milk adulteration, which is seen as being rampant in many states.
Advocate Anurag Tomar, who was representing the petitioners, argued that milk contaminated with synthetic material is being sold particularly in northern states, and poses a serious threat to the health of consumers.
He submitted that samples collected by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India showed that there was large-scale sale of adulterated milk across the country.
The first ever national survey on milk adulteration, published by the FSSAI in 2012, revealed that most urban Indians drink contaminated milk, and 70% of samples tested for the report contained anything from starch to detergents and bleaching agents to fertilisers.
It found that, due to lack of hygiene and sanitation in milk handling and packaging, detergents that were used during cleaning operations had not been washed properly and would find their way into the milk.
Other contaminants like urea, starch, glucose and formalin were also used as adulterants. These are used to increase the thickness and viscosity of the milk, as well as to preserve it for a longer period.
Around 8% of samples were found to contain detergents, although water turned out to be the most common adulterant in milk, with 46% of the 1,971 tested samples being diluted with water.
Milk is an especially touchy subject at the moment, with prices more than doubling since 2008, when a litre cost an average of Rs16 (US$0.26) compared to Rs40 (US$0.64) today.
This year, some of India’s leading dairy suppliers have announced they would raise the price they charged to Rs2 per litre to absorb the "ongoing rise in the prices of raw milk in the last few months, coupled with the need to ensure availability of milk in the consumer market,” according to Mother Dairy, the biggest such company in Delhi NCR.
This follows similar action taken by dairy major Amul, which has increased its prices four times since last April, to the tune of Rs8-10 per litre.