Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Sep 26 2008

China awash in melamine? Now it’s zoo animals

So much for “just” pet food.  Now the Shanghai zoo has baby lions and orangutans with melamine-induced kidney stones.  Tainted products have made their way into Japan and Taiwan, and the Europeans are worried that melamine-tainted milk products could be in  candies, toffees, and chocolate.  They will be testing Chinese products containing at least 15% milk.   But what about soy products, I wonder?   Those too are supposed to be high in protein and might be good candidates for adulteration.

And just to reiterate: last year’s pet food scandal showed that while it takes lots of melamine to cause kidney crystals, it takes hardly any to form crystals when cyanuric acid (a by-product of melamine) is present.  The amount of melamine in food for humans, pets, and zoo animals should be nothing but zero.    Food safety officials should test like mad and tighten up policies, and right now!  As for China: it had best get its food safety act together and fast.

Sep 25 2008

How much melamine is harmful?

The European Food Standards Agency has done some calculations.  It says the Tolerable Daily Intake (TDI) is 0.5 milligrams per kilogram (mg/kg) body weight.  This means that for a young child weighing 10 kilograms (22 pounds), it would only take five of those candies mentioned in the previous post to hit the TDI.

But the Agency also says that Chinese infant formula contained as much as 2500 mg of melamine per kg.  Let’s assume that a scoop of formula weighs 10 grams and contains 25 mg melamine.  If a child has several feedings a day, this amount of melamine could easily exceed the TDI and, apparently, did.  And remember: if cyanuric acid is present, kidney crystals can form at even lower doses.

Sep 25 2008

If it’s made in China and contains milk, better check for melamine

Chinese candies imported to New Zealand have been found to contain melamine–at a level of 180 milligrams per kilogram.  The candies only weigh a few milligrams so each one doesn’t have much.  They are unlikely to be harmful unless some kid eats a lot of them.  But, as I explain in Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine (and how’s that for a good guess?), very low doses of melamine can form crystals in kidneys if one of its by-products, cyanuric acid, is also present.  The lowest harmful dose of melamine plus cyanuric acid has not been defined.  We are now hearing lots of calls for more inspections and better regulation of imported foods, and about time too.  In the meantime, if a food comes from China and has milk as an ingredient, send it back.

As for the latest on the scandal over melamine in Chinese infant formula, the numbers keep growing: 53,000 sick infants, thousands of hospitalizations, and 3 deaths.  The formula companies – at least 20 brands are involved – were diluting milk with water and adding melamine to make the milk look as if it had enough protein.  This, apparently, has been an open secret in China since 2007, and should have been expected from what was known about melamine in pet foods.  Hence: Chihuahua in the Coal Mine.

Sep 25 2008

Latest San Francisco Chronicle column: HFCS

My latest Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle  – “The facts about corn sweeteners,” is in response to a question about high fructose corn syrup and the Corn Refiners’ ads.  Enjoy! (you read some of this here first).

Sep 24 2008

Food price fixing? It’s not legal

As readers know, I love to collect reasons for the sharp increase in food prices that has occurred this year.  Here’s a new one: price fixing.  Although you might not know it from looking at the similar prices of food products in the same category, price fixing is illegal.  Federal prosecutors are apparently looking into price collusion in the tomato industry (according to the Associated Press) and egg industry (Wall Street Journal).  Who knew?

Sep 22 2008

FDA issues guidelines on cloned animals

The FDA says meat from cloned animals is safe and has produced a bunch of web documents to reassure you that you can eat these things.  Will the meat be labeled as cloned?  Of course not.  The FDA guidelines will be up for comment for the next 60 days so if you have an opinion on this development, now is your chance.  I particularly recommend the Q’s and A’s on the FDA site.  Here’s one example:  “Q: Will food from GE animals be in the food supply? A: FDA has so far not approved or authorized any GE animals for use in food. However, we are reviewing applications…We can not predict when we will complete those reviews, but we will not approve any GE animal for food use unless we find that the food from those GE animals is safe.”

Sep 20 2008

Farewell Robert Steinberg


My friend Robert Steinberg died this week after a 20-year bout with lymphoma, and I am much too sad to write about anything else.  Robert, a physician whom I met briefly when he was a resident at UCSF, was already well into his illness when he gave up his medical practice to co-found Scharffen Berger chocolates with John Scharffenberger in the mid-1990s.  We got reacquainted around then at a Chefs Collaborative meeting in Walpole, New Hampshire, where he introduced me to Burdick’s chocolates and, over the years, to much else about high-quality chocolate (see the book that he and John wrote).   As a doctor, he had no illusions about the state of his health but there was no question that chocolate gave him reason to live.  I managed to see him on most of my trips to San Francisco, but this last time – the weekend of Slow Food Nation – he didn’t feel well enough.  He had been ill for so long, and complained about it so little, that I thought he would live forever.  No such luck.  Robert, farewell.  This world will miss you. 

Sep 19 2008

COOL is coming, sort of

At long last, Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL) goes into effect September 30.  Way back in 2002, Congress got the great idea to pass this legislation but there was so much opposition to it from the food industry that it got postponed endlessly – except for fish.   You might think that knowing where food is produced would be a Good Thing, but food companies say they can’t do it and raise all kinds of objections (too complicated, too expensive, not enough room on food labels, leave us alone).  Congress, sympathetic, left lots of loopholes. Consumers Union’s new guide to the new law tells you “what’s COOL and what’s not.”   CU’s press release summarizes the many exemptions: ham, bacon, roasted peanuts, anything sold in butcher shops or fish markets, mixed vegetables, trail mixes, and so forth..  As far as I can tell, nobody paid much attention to fish COOL so it will be interesting to see whether these new rules work better.  Keep asking!

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