Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Melamine Problem That Won't Go Away - Melamine in US Infant Baby Formula

A single sample of infant formula has tested positive for trace amounts of the toxic contaminant melamine, the Food and Drug Administration said Tuesday. The FDA would not disclose the manufacturer and said that the trace amounts posed no danger. A trace amount is generally less than 250 parts per billion. Last month, the FDA set the safety threshold for melamine at 2,500 parts per billion for foods other than infant formula. Most consumer and health advocates agree that there should be zero tolerance for melamine in food products.

In October 2008, the U.S. FDA issued new methods for the analysis of melamine and cyanuric acid in infant formulations in the Laboratory Information Bulletin No 4421.

Melamine is an industrial chemical used in the manufacture of can liners, flame retardant, cleaning products, fertilizers and pesticides.

It does not occur naturally in food.

Because it contains nitrogen, its addition to food products can wrongly suggest an inflated protein content. Melamine contains 66% nitrogen by mass.

Melamine is also used to extensively by the U.S. fertilizer industry.

Fertilizer companies add melamine to products to help control the rate at which nitrogen seeps into soil, allowing farmers to get more nutrient bang for their fertilizer buck. The government doesn't regulate how much melamine is applied to the soil.

A related area of agricultural concern is animal feed. Chinese eggs seized last month in Hong Kong had elevated levels of melamine caused by melamine-laden wheat gluten used in the feed for the chickens that produced the eggs.

The U.S. imports most of its wheat gluten. Last year the FDA reported millions of Americans had eaten chicken fattened on feed with melamine-tainted gluten imported from China. Around that time, Tyson Foods processed hogs that had eaten melamine-contaminated feed. The government decided against a recall.

The New York Times recently reported that several Chinese melamine suppliers admitted to newspapers to selling melamine to animal feed operations and fish feed providers in China.
One would have to be naïve to think that the melamine scandals are contained.

On October 13, 2008, this blog posed the question, “Can Chinese Catfish Be Trusted?” Chinese producers, in order to export fish to the US, must meet the same production standards as US fish farmers by December 2009. What does this really mean when there is no mechanism to police Chinese producers?

Mandatory Country-Of-Origin-Labeling (mCOOL) does not apply to food components, that is -- if Chinese farmed-fish are baked into a casserole served at your child’s elementary school, there is no requirement to disclose that the fish was farmed in China, or that the casserole contains Chinese-made ingredients.

Senate Bill S.1776 (The Imported Food Security Act of 2007) would enable the FDA to withdraw the certification of any food importer that fails to meet U.S. safety standards. It has been sitting in committee since July of 2007, and will die with the end of the 110th Congress.

And H.R. 3937 (the Food Import Safety Act) gives the FDA authority to ban imports from countries that have a pattern of food safety violations, as well as mandatory recall authority. It has been sitting in subcommittee since October of 2007, and will die with the end of the 110th Congress.The government is charged with insuring food safety in the United States. Its failure to act will be the proximate cause of food related illnesses and injuries in the United States. This is really a do-nothing Congress in the area of food safety.

One can only hope that President Obama will recognize the dangers to the food supply and make appropriate appointments to both the USDA and the FDA. Those appointees should zealously pursue their mandates and make substantive changes to their agencies, making food safety a national priority, and not a beard of the food industry and its lobbyists.

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