The New York Times says the Chinese Ministry of Health has issued a new count of Chinese infants ill from melamine-contaminated formula. Would you believe 294,000? The count includes 6 deaths, along with 861 still hospitalized with kidney problems.
One result: Chinese milk exports have dropped by 92%.
Friday is a great day for releasing news that might be controversial. The FDA announced a 1 ppm standard for safe levels of melamine in infant formula – provided cyanuric acid is not also present. By this standard, the amount in the adulterated Chinese infant formula – 2,000 ppm or more – would be deemed demonstrably toxic. The amount in the contaminated U.S. formula – 0.1 to 0.2 ppm – would be considered safe. Of course zero would be better, but that seems hard to achieve in today’s chemically contaminated environment. A 1 ppm standard is tough enough to give the FDA plenty of leeway in banning unsafe products.
Oh great. So now trace amounts of melamine are turning up in infant formulas made by all the big makers. The amounts – 0.1 to 0.2 ppm or less – are way too low to be harmful, says the FDA. This seems logical, but does this mean that trace amounts of melamine are in everything? And it would be good to know what concentration of melamine mixed with cyanuric acid – or uric acid – is safe. I can understand why the FDA might not want to get into all this but I wish the Associated Press could have gotten this information without having to file a freedom-of-information-act request.
Updates: Here’s the more circumspect account in the New York Times, and a skeptical commentary from LawyersAndSettlements.com. The Washington Post (November 29) reported specific figures: The FDA tested 87 infant formula products and has results for 77. Of these, it found melamine at levels of .137 and .14 parts per million in Nestle Good Start Supreme Infant Formula with Iron in liquid form. It also found cyanuric acid at levels between 0.245 ppm and 0.249 ppm in Enfamil Lipil with Iron (Mead Johnson Nutritionals/Briston-Myers Squibb). These are very low levels.
In the wake of the melamine scandals, the FDA sent 8 inspectors to open offices in three Chinese cities. According to Food Chemical News (FCN), China announced that it would be sending inspectors to the U.S. FCN speculates that this may mean that tensions between the two countries are mounting, particularly because FDA officials “never mentioned the new Chinese inspectors in scores of press releases publicizing the opening of the upcoming China offices.”
Kat’s question for me is “Shouldn’t the FDA keep melamine out of our domestic food chain?” Well yes. It should. And thanks to Sokie Lee for forwarding the Mao poster from her “say no to made in China” campaign. Still, I don’t think we should be too xenophobic about China. After all, its food safety system is about where ours was before we got food and drug laws in 1906. It’s just a lot bigger and more complicated so it has even more work to do to keep its – and our – food safe. And here’s Sokie’s poster in miniature:
I’m told that FDA laboratories are still finding melamine in milk-containing food products imported from China. In response, the FDA has issued a countrywide import alert, meaning that FDA officials can detain the products without having to examine and test them. The list of detainable products is long and includes not only milk but also yogurt, desserts, cakes and cookies, candies, chocolate, beverages, and- shades of 2007 – dog and cat food.
According to Food Chemical News (November 10), China has arrested the owner of a poultry feed company in Liaoning Province. The numbers are interesting. Reportedly, he admitted buying 45 tons of melamine in July, using it to produce 287 tons of chicken feed, and selling 212 tons to the Dalian Hanovo Enterprise Group, the company that produced melamine-contaminated eggs sent all over China. The remaining 75 tons has been destroyed.In the meantime, the Chinese agriculture ministry is reported to have sent 369,000 inspectors to examine 250,000 feed producers, and to have closed down 238 illegal farms. It had already closed down 130 dairy farms, and 20% of the country’s dairy producers are said to be out of operation.
These sound like good steps to get the food safety system under control but what I’m hearing is that the government is dealing with safety problems piecemeal – one food at a time – rather than addressing the system as a whole. Sound familiar?
A new poll says 90% of U.S. consumers are worried about food safety, but 79% of the worried think the problems are with imported food and only 21% are worried about domestic food. Everybody should be worried about both, if you ask me. The U.N. says China needs to do something about its food safety problems, and fast. That would help. China reports that melamine has been found in eggs, of all things (the chickens ate contaminated feed?). So would cleaning up our own food safety system.
I’m doing a panel discussion on The Politics of Food at the Smithsonian’s food history weekend. The panel will be moderated by Dan Charles of NPR. Warren Belasco and Adrian Miller are co-panelists. This will be at the National Museum of American History, Warner Brothers Theater. Time: 9:45 a.m. Registration: free.