by Marion Nestle
Oct 6 2008

Melamine: let’s do the math

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.

  • Hi Marion–
    I am very concerned about our candy supply. Just recently I had purchased some red cherry jelly beans and then noticed on the back they were from some 3rd world country. I had actually assumed that something as common as jelly beans were made in the USA. It appears that almost all of the candy in dollar stores or sold in vending machines is made in China, Indonesia.

    I believe in made from scratch. Do I have to make my own jelly beans? Our food supply is becoming riskier and riskier.

    I attended your lecture at Chautauqua Institution and was very impressed with your talk.

    I currently have a book out for middle school students that teaches emerging teens to eat healthy and become food factivists and activists. it is a fact-filled fiction book about two gutsy girls who have opposite body shapes. The book is about their learning experiences as they follow the road to healthy eating is spite of detours caused by fast food, fat food, peer pressure, lack of activiity and junk food. It is a humorous read but packed with food facts. Believe it or not, it is only about 100 pages long, but I have planted the seeds for change that will enable young people and educators to embrace a healthy Mediterranean diet. I gave you my book card at Chautauqua and asked you if you would remember me if I emailed you. Do you remember me? I would love to send you a copy of my book to see what you might think of it.

    Sylvia Fiorello

  • Stick to the carbide for melamine. You can get great cuts in any board if you feed it the right tooling. I think your tooling diameter is too small. I don’t ever use tools less than 1/2″ in 3/4″ thick industrial melamine. Carbide should be fine with the larger tool. I prefer 3/4″ shank and flutes.
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  • Foodaroo

    People should realize that the odds are pretty good that their food sources come from China when they eat out at a restaurant. To keep food costs down, many restaurants resort to China for food.

    But I don’t think much will be done about China’s food safety. What is illegal here is legal over there. And melamine is not the only concern.

    In 2004, HK questioned China about the use of formaldehyde in its shittaki. Apparently, farmers are allowed to use formaldehyde as a food preservative. Here’s the article: