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.
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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?
If your dog or cat was caught up in the melamine pet food recalls of 2007 (see Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine) and you would like to file a claim in the pet food class action suit, go here for information and instructions. The deadline for filing a claim is November 24.
If I learned one thing from my research on the 2007 pet food recalls it is surely that the food supplies for pets, people, and farm animals cannot be separated; they are one and the same. This is because pets eat the parts of animals that we don’t and surplus pet food is fed to pigs, chicken, and fish, which we do eat. Now we have further reason to be concerned about how pet food is made; pet food contaminated with Salmonella can cause infections in people. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has just published its epidemiological investigation, of infections caused by dry dog food produced at a plant in Everson, PA owned by Mars Petcare. Scientific American even thinks that this is worth writing about. Me too, obviously, particularly because cases are still cropping up even though Mars issued recalls.
Update, November 10: the New York Times reports on this.
The British Food Standards Agency has been checking on levels of melamine in sweets imported from China. Some candies contained as much as 152 milligrams melamine per kilogram (mg/kg) or parts per million (ppm). A kg is 2.2 pounds, which would be a lot of candy to eat. Some of the tainted infant formula contained 2,500 mg/kg, but you only use a scoop (10 grams or so) to make up a bottle of infant formula, and that would contain 25 mg.
I realize that I am asking the wrong question – melamine should not be in food at all – but how much is safe to eat? To follow this, you have to pay close attention to the difference between mg/kg melamine in food versus the amount per kg body weight.
The FDA says 2.5 mg/kg in food is unlikely to be harmful in anything other than infant formula. The FDA’s May 2007 melamine risk assessment said 63 mg/kg body weight was safe for adults but it established a Tolerable Daily Intake (TDI) 100 times lower, or 0.63 mg/kg body weight per day. The European TDI is even lower: 0.5 mg/kg body weight per day. Using the European TDI, a person weighing 80 kg (176 pounds) could supposedly safely consume 40 mg melamine from food a day. But a baby weighing 5 kg (12 pounds) drinking infant formula containing 25 mg melamine would be getting 5 mg/kg body weight with every bottle – ten times the European TDI. And babies drink several bottles a day. And if a by-product of melamine, cyanuric acid, is also present, kidney crystals can form at much lower concentrations.
All of this begs the question: how come it is there in the first place and what are the food safety agencies going to do about it? And when? In the meantime, food companies should be testing anything with protein in it for melamine and it’s best to avoid eating foods made in places where they aren’t doing such testing.
I had never heard of this before but Marshal Zeringue runs a blog and a website devoted to the Campaign for the American Reader and what he calls “The Page 99 Test.” The idea is that what’s on page 99 is a pretty good indicator of what the book is about and how it reads. Here’s his blog entry. And here’s how Pet Food Politics fares on the Page 99 test.
I’ve just discovered the Associated Press timeline of the events in this scandal. The timeline starts in December 2007 when the first reports of sick babies came in. It took until June to figure out that melamine was the toxic contaminant, and another three months before anyone did anything about it. I, of course, think that the 2007 pet food recalls should have alerted everyone to look for melamine. Now they are.
It’s not easy to keep up with the widening scandal over melamine-tainted infant formula, although Wikipedia is a big help. The New York Times has a full page on it today. Yesterday, the FDA recalled a bunch of instant coffee and tea drinks because their creamers might be contaminated with melamine. And UNICEF and the World Health Organization issued a joint statement warning mothers not to use Chinese infant formula. Breastfeeding, they point out forcefully, is still the best way to feed infants.
All this reminds me of the unsanitary history of milk adulteration in the United States. By the 1850s, health officials were complaining about the widespread practice of feeding nutritionally deficient swill to cows and watering down milk with magnesia, chalk, plaster of Paris and anything else to make it look creamy, never mind the effects on infants. As a result of efforts by the New York Academy of Medicine, New York passed a state anti-adulteration law in 1862. The 1906 Food and Drug Act laid the groundwork for eliminating most such problems, which is one of the reasons why I think national food safety regulation–with inspection and testing–is so badly needed.
What the Chinese are doing isn’t new. It’s just that in today’s globalized food economy, bad actions do more damage, and worldwide at that.
Postscript: About the recalled White Rabbit candies. Former Premier Zhou Enlai liked them so much that he gave them to President Nixon on his visit to China in 1972.