CHINA - Melamine already in global food chain
GILLIAN WONG, AP, Capital Press 10/31/08
BEIJING (AP) - First it was baby milk formula. Then,
dairy-based products from yogurt to chocolate.
Now chicken eggs have been contaminated with melamine, and an
admission by state-run media that the industrial chemical is
regularly added to animal feed in China is fueling fears the
problem could be more widespread, affecting fish, meat and who
knows what else.
Peter Dingle, a toxicity expert at Murdoch University in
Perth, Australia, said, however, that aside from the tainted
baby formula that killed at least four Chinese infants and
left 54,000 children hospitalized just over a month ago, it is
unlikely humans will get sick from melamine.
The amount of the chemical in a few servings of bacon, for
instance, would simply be too low, he said.
But Dingle and others said China should have cracked down
sooner on feed companies that have boosted their earnings by
fortifying their products with the chemical, which is normally
used in the manufacture of plastic and fertilizers.
Rich in nitrogen, melamine gives low-quality food and feed
artificially high protein readings.
"Traders can make a lot of profit by doing it," said Jason Yan,
the U.S. Grains Council's technical director in Beijing.
Extremely high levels of melamine - as found in the Chinese
baby formula - can cause kidney stones, and in extreme cases
can bring on life-threatening kidney failure.
But while scientists say it's not dangerous to ingest small
amounts, they cannot be definitive because there have been no
tests on melamine's effects in humans. Until the contaminated
baby formula became public in September, there was never any
That leaves consumers worldwide, particularly parents, worried
about food products from China, and even those made elsewhere
with ingredients imported from Chinese companies.
Among those not taking any chances is Pranee Suankaew, a
homemaker in Bangkok, Thailand.
"Let's go, let's go," the 37-year-old mother said as she
tugged her 4-year-old away from the candy aisle where he
eagerly eyed a bag of M&Ms. "We're getting you fruit and a
lollipop. There's no milk in that."
She said she usually gives in to avoid tantrums. "But this
time, I told him, no, no, no."
Experts say melamine sometimes accidentally leaches into the
food supply in low levels, from things like plastic
dinnerware. It can also seep in from some pesticides and
But in China it's become clear that the chemical is
The baby formula set off a global recall of foods made with
Chinese dairy products and sparked raids in supermarkets
across Asia. Twelve truckloads of candy, yogurt and other
dairy-based goods were burned in Indonesia's capital, Jakarta,
just this week.
In light of Wednesday reports by state media on the widespread
use of the chemical in animal feed, health experts say the
government clearly knew melamine was being added for more than
a year, since contaminated dog food made it to markets in
North America, but didn't crack down on producers as promised.
With the scandal escalating, Chinese leaders are now desperate
to clean up the country's image, making dozens of arrests in
recent weeks and firing local and even high-level officials
John Chapple, a Singapore-based adviser to Sinoanalytica, a
food analysis laboratory in the Chinese city of Qingdao, said
the decision to allow state media to report on the years of
melamine use seems to show the government is ready to be more
active in dealing with food safety.
"However, one is not going to change a hierarchical government
system overnight," he added. "It is usually going to be slow
to start to react to a crisis, but quick to finally nail it."
Though China has vowed to boost inspections for melamine
contamination, it will be difficult to monitor the countless
small, illegally operating manufacturers found across the
country, other experts said.
"It could take five or even 10 years" before some companies
stop adding the chemical to food products, said Yan, of the
U.S. Grains Council.
Associated Press writer Robin McDowell in Jakarta, Indonesia,
contributed to this report.