Why milk companies prefer to ignore rather than address the controversies that surround their products.
In July, I was tagged on Facebook. Generally, when this happens, I un-tag myself as most of the stuff is irrelevant. However, this tag was different. It was an image of a MilkPak carton, showing a one-inch thick, hardened layer of ‘milk’ that had come out of the freshly bought carton. The image did the rounds on social media eliciting heated debate on the horrors perpetuated on consumers by packaged milk companies like Nestlé. I read the comments with a bemused expression.
“The ingredients they use in these Tetra Pak milks are the same ones used in ‘hair removal cream’.”
“OMG… I always knew Nestlé was more of a *********** and that’s what they are best at doing. This has happened before. They had these weird white particles in their milk ***** *** ***.”
“Ager yeh Tetra Pak wallay doodh itnay mufeed hootay tou pooray Europe/USA/Canada may bhee use hotay.” (If these Tetra Pak milk products were so good, they would be used in Europe, USA and Canada too.)
“This Tetra Pak milk is not actually milk. It is a mixture of other things.”
The incident reminded me of my time at Nestlé three years ago, when I was looking after MilkPak.
By the way I love this brand and I am proud of the fact that I was an integral part of the marketing team that created some fantastic campaigns.
####Instead of ignoring controversies, the milk producing companies owe their consumers a cogent explanation of how their industry works, writes Sami Qahar.
It was during this period that we launched a limited edition carton to coincide with Pakistan’s 62nd Independence Day. We had printed an image of the crescent and star on the pack making it look similar to the national flag. This gave rise to a huge controversy and we started receiving calls and emails saying that we were deliberately humiliating the Pakistani flag.
We are an emotional nation. We speak before we think and we act before we speak. Given our tendency to burn the effigies of our World Cup winning cricket heroes, hurling insults at the milk manufacturing companies is nothing. This is probably one of the major reasons why companies like Nestlé do not come forward to explain their position regarding incidents such as these; they know that the vast majority of consumers will not even bother to understand their point of view.
“I heard several myths about milk during my time at Nestlé,” says Sarah Hussain, former Group Brand Manager, MilkPak. “The most common was that packaged milk is not milk. Some said it was made from powder, others that it was a mixture of chemicals, white colouring and water. The most interesting one was that Nestlé puts crushed cow bones in MilkPak.”
“There were some funny ones too,” adds Ehtisham Khan, formerly associated with the sales function at Engro Foods. “Flour is mixed in the milk to make it thicker. Once I was standing at a bakery and this elderly man said to me ‘aap log pata nahin kahan kahan se doodh lay kar aatay hain’ (we don’t know where you get your milk from).”
“As I am not directly involved in the production process, I sometimes cannot provide an explanation to counter the statements people make about packaged milk,” says Nabeel Butt, Account Director, Lowe & Rauf (the ad agency for Nestlé MilkPak). “Some people say there is urea in the milk. Others maintain that the milk companies extract all the healthy ingredients from the milk and only leave the residue in the packs. Others still ask why is there no layer of cream, which is common when you boil loose milk. Honestly, I have no answer.”
Butt does not have the answer but the milk manufacturers do. However, they are not doing enough to give those answers to their customers.
Sorry to disappoint everyone, we will have to kill some of the myths right here.
- Packaged milk is milk. It’s not crushed cow bones or urea. Using crushed cow bones would be far more expensive than using milk itself.
- Milk manufacturers do not remove any ingredients from the milk. In fact, they add nutrients to strengthen the quality (iron fortification, calcium, etc.).
- There is no layer of cream on packaged milk because it has been through the Ultra High Temperature (approx. 145 degrees C) treatment before being packed.
- Flour is not used to thicken the milk. The thickness is due to stabilisers (see below).
- Europe, USA and Canada have plenty of Tetra Pak milk brands. Arla Foods, Silk and Dutch Lady are huge brands in developed markets.
It is also important to understand the supply limitations of the dairy industry in Pakistan, which is driven by the fact that there are two cycles (seasons); flush and lean. In simple terms, flush occurs in winter and lean in summer. However, more than seasonal, flush and lean periods are weather dependent; if the temperature drops in August followed by rain, the industry will experience a mini flush period for a week or so.
####The average Pakistani buffalo yields 20 litres of milk a day during the flush period; the same buffalo in the summer heat will only produce eight to 10 litres and this is what makes the dairy industry totally supply driven.
To understand flush better, let’s take the example of an average Pakistani buffalo that yields 20 litres of milk a day during the flush period; the same buffalo in the summer heat will only produce eight to 10 litres and this is what makes the dairy industry totally supply driven. Pakistan is the 11th highest milk producing country in the world*. However, this quantity does not guarantee that the milk produced is of the finest quality. The milk collected from farmers has to reach the chillers within three to four hours otherwise the milk becomes contaminated and cannot be used. This effectively means that Pakistan loses over a quarter of the milk it produces every day because of lack of infrastructure. The rest is collected by companies such as Nestlé and Engro which buy the milk from the buffalo farmers on a daily basis and process it at their plants.
The flush period is almost problem-free; the real problems begin with the lean period. Farmers, on seeing the lesser quantity of milk produced, either try to adulterate the milk or feed the wrong food to their buffaloes. The second issue is a decline in the fat and protein count of the milk due to the weather. Supply becomes limited and the stability of the product is in danger. As a result, milk producers add stabilisers to the product so that the nutrients remain stable throughout the shelf life of the milk. These stabilisers are approved by the Pakistan Standards Quality Control Authority (PSQCA) and are not harmful to either the milk or to health.
The problem lies with the infrastructure and natural resources. Unfortunately, we have a long summer and a short winter in the milk producing regions of Punjab and Sindh. If the government had the vision to develop more milk production units in the cooler northern areas of Pakistan, we would have better quality milk. One can argue that milk from Saudi Arabia (Al-Marai or Danone) is of better quality despite the fact that they are hot countries too, but here we are talking about the world’s largest integrated farms, which are also temperature controlled. In Pakistan, where most human beings cannot think of air-conditioners, providing them to cows and buffaloes sounds a bit odd.
When questions of safety arise regarding packaged milk, I usually take the emotional route. I tell people that I gave MilkPak to my two-year-old daughter as well as to my pregnant wife. (Trust me, this approach convinced more people in our emotional nation.) Only then did I explain further that apart from UHT milk, the choices are either loose or pasteurised milk, and for reasons of cost, taste and availability I would not recommend either.
The common response to these issues among companies such as Nestlé is a shrug of the shoulders and a statement to the effect that this is a ‘one-off incident’. This is where the problem lies. These are industry wide issues and the industry needs to come together and explain them to their consumers. These one-off incidents were insignificant in the past, however, with over 4,000 shares on Facebook and probably a million views, these issues do not remain one-off. Pakistan’s milk industry needs to step up and act. If not, these myths will keep on making the rounds and every new incident will harm the brands even more than the previous one.
*World Milk Production Facts www.dairyco.org.uk
Sami Qahar is a former brand manager for Nestlé MilkPak.