A Case for Milk – The Dairy Industry in Myanmar
The white nectar that sustains infants and builds their body and bones in the first year of their life, the wholesome liquid that nourishes and nurtures those unable to eat solid foods, and the rich source of calcium, is slowly weaving its way into the average Myanmar diet. Supermarkets now stock a wide range of dairy products like yoghurt, cheese, buttermilk, cream, butter, ghee, milk powder, evaporated and condensed milk, many of which have a long shelf life. The product range and variety has increased manifold in the last 5-7 years, with more local small scale manufacturers experimenting with newer products as well imported dairy products lining shelves.
Traditionally, milk was never an important part of the average Myanmar diet, as has been seen in other less developed countries. It has also been seen that milk consumption increases as communities and countries develop, earning capabilities improve and awareness about health and nutrition increase. An increase in income leads to the incorporation of milk and dairy products in largely starch based diets. There is a strong correlation between income and milk consumption at the micro level, and between the dairy industry and stage of economic development of a country. At present milk consumption in developed countries is steady, but growing the fastest in Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean.
India is the world’s largest producer and consumer of milk if we combine the production of cow and buffalo milk, though the U.S. is the world’s largest producer of cow’s milk.
The health benefits of milk
The general reference to milk implies cow’s milk, and in some places, buffalo milk, though milk can be procured from other mammals just as well, and from plant based sources like soya, rice and almonds. Cow’s milk is the highest consumed milk due to the nine essential nutrients it contains, including calcium, potassium, and the daily human requirement of protein. Cow’s milk has better flavour and texture, followed closely by buffalo milk which is popular in very few countries, India being one of them. Cow’s milk has an 87% water content and 13% solids which include minerals, proteins, fats and lactose.
Proponents of milk consider it to be nature’s complete nutrient for humans, providing calcium which is needed for better bones and teeth, and prevents osteoporosis in old age. Daily intake of milk helps to neutralize toxins which enter the body through other foods and can damage the human body. The nourishment derived from milk helps sustain energy levels and keeps our minds and bodies active. For infants and those without teeth, a milk and dairy diet is complete nutrition for growth and sustenance. Health experts are convinced about the role of milk in controlling blood pressure and diabetes.
Commercial milk production
Milk is by far the most nutritive beverage and widespread propagation of its importance as an essential dietary requirement has led governments to encourage setting up of dairy farms, both small and large. This includes nurturing animals, collecting and selling milk. This is not simple at all and the journey from cow to cup is rather long.
Raw milk taken from the cow has to be processed to make it safe for human consumption. Being highly perishable, raw milk lasts for only a few hours unless refrigerated. Therefore, large dairy farms typically collect milk in refrigerated stainless steel containers and send them to milk processing plants where milk is passed through a series of separators and clarifiers which remove debris, bacteria, and also separate heavier and lighter milk.
Essentially milk has to be pasteurized to kill any harmful bacteria. Pasteurization involves heating milk in a specific manner to kill all harmful bacteria but retaining the good bacteria and natural enzymes. It also helps to extend shelf life of milk. The next step is homogenization, a process used to crush the fat globules floating in the milk solid, to make them so small that they cannot rise to the surface and form a thick creamy layer. Milk is also differentiated by fat content, and a set of processes render full cream, low fat or skimmed milk. Vitamin fortified milk and flavoured milk are other varieties produced.
The milk is then packaged and sent to various destinations in refrigerated vehicles, though long-lasting varieties can be sent through normal vehicles.
All types of commercially packaged milk has to meet stringent standards set by a regulatory authority of the country. Quality control is important and has to be maintained by ensuring hygiene and cleanliness levels of the milk processing plant, as well as the health of the animal that provides the milk.
Myanmar’s Dairy Industry
The diary sector in Myanmar is in an early stage of development. Research indicates that almost 85% of Myanmar’s milk comes from small dairy farms, that sell raw milk, due to limited processing facilities, to consumers and businesses close by. The annual production of milk is around 620 million kilograms, and this is less than half the national milk requirements. The Yangon region has seven large milk processors that process raw milk collected by a small network of milk collectors who in turn procure raw milk from very small dairy farms within a distance of 30 km. Quality control and certification of the milk processed is not a regular practice.
The gradual increase in incomes is spurring demand for milk and milk products, which cannot be met by domestic production. The range of milk products commonly consumed include fresh milk, flavoured milk, yoghurt, plain and flavoured, milk powder, condensed milk, and ice cream. A big source of demand comes from the thousands of tea shops across the country that sell millions of cups of tea laced with generous amounts of condensed milk. Most of this is imported since the local varieties produced in factories in the Mandalay region are unable to compete with imported condensed milk in terms of both price and quality. Milk powder is used extensively in the making of highly popular 3-in-1 tea and coffee sachets.
The gap between demand and supply is being met by imports from Thailand, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and other countries. A large segment of this is milk powder, that is also sold as reconstituted milk. According to commerce ministry figures, in a single week in July 2017, 409 tons of condensed milk and 70 tons of milk powder were imported into Myanmar via sea routes. Regular imports from neighbouring Thailand come from the land route across the border.
Some of the leading local brands include Walco, Silvery Pearl, TM, PEP, Fun Hwa and others. This is fresh pasteurized milk in full cream and low fat varieties, but available mainly in the Yangon region. Imported long lasting milk brands include Cowhead, Emborg, Dutch Lady, Foremost, and scores of others, some of which also sell milk powder, condensed milk and evaporated milk in supermarkets and smaller shops lacking refrigeration facilities.
Despite the setting up of various bodies like the Myanmar Dairy Association and Myanmar Dairy Products Manufacturers Association among others, the dairy industry faces multiple stumbling blocks to increasing supply, like inadequate infrastructure, lack of funding and financing options, no access to technical expertise and advisory bodies and others, all of which are essential for improving the quality of milk and making each step of the milk producing process efficient. The dairy industry is at least two decades behind its Thailand counterpart with lack of access to continuous power supply, adequate refrigeration facilities for storage, and reliable transport. Increasing livestock to increase production would be easy, but related issues at every step of the production process need to be resolved first.
Milk and dairy products became a part of the human diet as early as 8000 BCE. Cattle breeding and livestock have sustained civilizations over centuries and milk served to provide essential nutrients in the absence of other foods. However, Southern Asian nations did not include dairy and dairy products as an integral part of their diet, and this trend has continued over centuries. It is only in the last few decades that these nations have started incorporating milk and dairy products into their diets.
The small interest in milk and dairy products began during British Rule for local Myanmar folk, and the Indian influence on food kept that going. Even today, Myanmar’s dairy industry can follow the Indian example, where its Operation Flood, launched the National Dairy Development Board, initiated an unstoppable ‘White Revolution’ and converted India from a milk deficient country to the world’s largest producer, besides generating employment especially in rural areas. The similarity in cultures of India and Myanmar, their proximity and willingness to share knowledge makes India the ideal neighbour to take a cue from.