I have an op-ed (about the FDA’s handling of melamine in U.S. infant formula) and a Food Matters column (answering questions about salt) in the San Francisco Chronicle this week, and a response to a question from Eating Liberally about Governor Paterson’s proposed tax on soft drinks. Enjoy!
Currently browsing posts about: Infant-formula
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.
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.
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.