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.
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Today’s Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle is about the melamine scandals. Melamine is still a big problem. It has just turned up as the cause of death of 1,500 raccoon “dogs” (animals raised for fur in China) and in pizzas in Japan. There seems no end to ingenious uses for making food and feed appear to have more protein than they really do, never mind that melamine forms kidney crystals when mixed with one of its by-products, cyanuric acid.
For the science types among you, the intrepid Procter & Gamble scientists who identified melamine in pet food have just published their toxicology findings. Take a look at Figure 1, which compares the chromatography of the “control” (safe) cat food with the cat food “tainted” with melamine and its nasty by-products. And check out Table 1; it reports that nearly 15% of the so-called wheat gluten was actually melamine and cyanuric acid. The amounts in Chinese infant formula were in the same ballpark, so it’s no wonder that so many babies got sick. This is a huge scandal and clear indication that our food safety systems need a major fix.
The Wall Street Journal reports that China has new guidelines on allowable levels of melamine in foods: 1 ppm (mg/kg) in infant formula and 2.5 ppm in other foods. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency agrees and is requiring importers of foods from China to document that their products meet these standards. According to the October 10 Food Chemical News (which I can’t link to), the number of infants affected by melamine-contaminated infant formula is nearly 94,000, with 30,000 cases in central Henan province and 16,000 in Hebei province, both near where the source of the problem, the Sanlu Dairy group, is located.
In Hong Kong, Cadbury’s is recalling 11 China-made chocolate products found to contain melamine. I hope everyone is testing everything made in China that might have milk or protein in it. Soy anyone?
Update: According to the Wall Street Journal, Indonesia says it found melamine in M&M’s and Snickers bars. Mars says that’s not possible.
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.
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.