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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
My interview with Eating Liberally this week concerns the wake of the pet food recalls that I wrote about in Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine. Some Chihuahua! Now we have the Chinese infant formula scandal and don’t we wish we had Country-of-Origin Labeling? It’s been a busy few days on the scandal. The toll so far is 2 babies dead and 1253 sick, with 340 still in the hospital, and 53 of these are in serious condition. The Chinese have arrested two brothers who run a milk collection center on suspicion that they added melamine to make the protein content appear higher. An investigation of dairy producers found 22 to be producing milk contaminated with melamine. The largest of these dairies is owned in part by Fonterra, a New Zealand company. Fonterra says it tried to get the formula recalled earlier but the Chinese refused.
September 17: Today, it’s 3 babies dead, 1,300 in the hospital, and 6,244 sick. They were adding melamine to cover for diluting the milk with water. Hmm. Just like we used to do in the early years of the 20th century before passing pure food laws. Regulation, anyone?
When I was in New Zealand last year at a ministerial agriculture meeting, I heard a lot about how ranchers were giving up on sheep and starting large dairy farms to supply milk to China. This meant the end of pristine streams and sheep dotting the landscape.
The FDA has issued a warning not to buy infant formula made in China (read labels!), since some of it may be in ethnic markets in the U.S. under the “grey” market. And China is investigating, threatening punishment, and issuing recalls.
I can hardly believe it but USA Today reports that Chinese infant formula has been found to be contaminated with melamine, the very same toxic ingredient that caused the pet food recalls of 2007. Melamine-laced pet foods killed cats and dogs. Who knows what it might do in infant formula. Melamine is high in nitrogen. Tests for protein just test for nitrogen and don’t care where it comes from. Melamine, which is cheap, makes pet foods and infant formulas look like they have a lot of protein, which is expensive. That would be bad enough but melamine and one of its by-products, cyanuric acid, form crystals that block kidney function. The fraudulent addition of melamine to pet food is precisely the subject of my book, Pet Food Politics. It’s subtitle is The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine. Now you know why.