Indian private milk firms take adulteration accusations to court

The feud between private dairy companies in India and a government minister over allegations of adulterated milk has stepped up a notch after the companies took the matter to court.

The legal move follows comments by the Tamil Nadu state dairy development minister KT Rajendra Bhalaji about six weeks ago when he publicly claimed private dairy companies were lacing their milk with toxic substances that could cause cancer.

He claimed: "Milk sold by private dealers is definitely adulterated. The milk that is banned in Kerala is being sold in Tamil Nadu according to my investigation."

He accused private companies of using caustic soda, bleaching powder in spoilt milk and formaldehyde among other chemicals, and that toxic preservatives were causing cancer in children. He also said that milk from the state-run cooperative Aavin was safe for consumption.

His allegations were reportedly based on an investigation and lab tests.

The companies denied the claims and denounced the comments. The minister stood by what he said.

Now the row has moved to the Madras high court, where three private companies have sought Rs 1 crore ($155,000) each as compensation from Bhalaji, as well as an interim order of injunction, banning the minister from making accusations of this nature to all forms of mass media.

The civil suit, filed by Hatsun Agro Products, Dodla Dairy Limited and Vijay Dairy & Farm Products Private Limited, claim that Bhalaji's "baseless statements and accusations" are having a grave impact on the products and credibility of the private dairy companies.

They claim that the statements, published in newspapers circulated in Chennai, have caused the public to be suspicious of the milk and milk products manufactured by the private companies.

They said: "Rajendra Bhalaji was sworn in minister on August 30, 2016, and has recently started a media campaign against private dairies. The statements made by him on at least half a dozen occasions since May 24 are nothing but scurrilous attack, completely unsubstantiated and most times, totally absurd."

The companies claimed that if the minister was not stopped from continuing to make these accusations their reputations would be damaged and they would stand to lose heavily.

They further claimed that such comments could not be part of the minister's official duties given that the department of dairy development focuses on public dairies and has no oversight of the private sector. There have been suggestions that Bhalaji was looking to promote the state-owned milk brand Aavin.

The companies sought compensation of Rs 1 crore each with 24 per cent annual interest for losses suffered as a direct result of the accusations, as well as an injunction gagging the minister from making insinuations or statements that directly disparaged the companies and their products or making accusations of adulteration against private dairies as a whole.

In response to the civil suit, the judge Justice CV Karthikeyan ordered Bhalaji to refrain from making accusations of adulteration unless he could provide evidence of adulteration, including specifying the name of the private company involved in the illicit activity.

This would go some way to allaying public fear, the judge said.

Hatsun Agro Product welcomed the interim order.

Meanwhile, the Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ICCI) has asked the Tamil Nadu government to intervene in the dispute.

"It is time to put an end to this controversy, which has been going on for weeks now in the interest of all," said Vanitha Mohan, president of ICCI. "The Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006, gives enough powers to the state government to set standards for various varieties of milk. It also has the machinery to enforce these standards and issue certificates of compliance."

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