Why A Little Melamine-Tainted Food Is Good For Us


Melamine (The New York Times)

More deaths due to China's melamine-tainted milk were reported last week, just as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration opened an office in Beijing and shut down imports of milk from China. But a year after the ominous tainted pet food story emerged and we wondered if we were next, an op-ed in the New York Times reminds us that melamine has already been here for a while. The take-away? Instead of blustery anti-made-in-China rhetoric we might start looking more closely at the underpinnings of the problem. It's another story about how we're all connected.
It may not be added to our milk intentionally, but melamine has already been used for decades in the wheat gluten used to make our animal feed. Writes Prof. James McWilliams of Texas State University at San Marcos,

...the United States imports most of its wheat gluten. Last year, for instance, the F.D.A. reported that millions of Americans had eaten chicken fattened on feed with melamine-tainted gluten imported from China. Around the same time, Tyson Foods slaughtered and processed hogs that had eaten melamine-contaminated feed. The government decided not to recall the meat.
How did we get here? How can we change? And might this pesky chemical additive actually be a good thing?

China's Problem
When news broke of China's melamine-tainted milk, fingers pointed immediately at the milk farmers. But for all the shock however, the practice of spiking milk with melamine to up its perceived protein content has been something of an open secret for years. It was harbored and promoted by everyone from dairy executives to middlemen to government officials. (And thanks to China's coal and military industries, it's in excess supply)

Only when a few babies died, or when news of their deaths was finally reported, did the hidden costs come to bear. The panic that has followed in China was arguably greater (and understandably so) than last year's panic by worried American parents over toxic toys. In China, the melamine scare may be the agricultural version of the American mortgage crisis.

It would be foolish to think that the problem of adulterating foods with melamine is going away anytime soon. But it would be just as foolish of the Communist Party not to find ways to squash this problem. Considering the dangers of melamine (and badly built schools and pollution and corruption) to the health of China's citizens -- and thus, to the health of the Communist Party -- it's easy to see why the government is starting to tell state-run media to report the bad news too.

The impact has been tragic, and the costs are still being tallied. But a little melamine now may prove to be a good thing for the future.

Fertilizer Problems
If the problem in China is so big as to be impossible to ignore, the problem in the U.S. and elsewhere may be so convoluted that it's hard to know where to begin. Dr. McWilliams notes that melamine often ends up not just in animal feed but also fertilizer, where it helps regulate the way that nitrogen seeps into soil. The government doesn't regulate this use of melamine, he says.

But as the FDA's website clearly states, "Melamine also has been used as a fertilizer in some parts of the world. It is not registered for use as a fertilizer in the United States."

Even if we were just eating vegetables, we are susceptible. Melamine is commonly used in other materials, from cooking utensils to paperboard. From there, melamine ends up in the waste stream, and inevitably in fertilizers.

American regulations, writes McWilliams, are "vague enough to allow industries to 'recycle' much of their waste into fertilizer and other products that form the basis of our domestic food supply."

How Much Is Too Much?
Besides eating organically -- which may not help, as the Tyson Foods example shows -- the solution, writes McWilliams, is better regulation.

State laws vary, but federal regulations permit the use of fertilizer made from sewage sludge (biosolids) and industrial wastes depending on concentration of certain hazardous compounds. Says the Environmental Protection Agency, "For food chain crops, farming can occur on land where hazardous constituents are applied as long as the agricultural producer receives a permit from the EPA Regional Administrator. Agricultural producers must demonstrate that there is no substantial risk to human health caused by the growth of such crops."

The FDA has pointed out that a 130-pound person would have to consume 800 pounds of food laced with the industrial chemical melamine in a single day to reach a level that would be considered harmful.

But in conjunction with state governments, the EPA has also undertaken a study to assess "whether or not contaminants in fertilizers may be causing harmful effects, and whether additional government actions to safeguard public health and the environment may be warranted."

The Harsh Truth
But expecting to regulate melamine out of our diets completely is not realistic. The food supply chain is just too damn complicated, and melamine too prevalent in countries from which we import our feed and our food -- see this telling graph. We need to acknowledge that there is at least a small amount of melamine in most of our diets.

While we chew on that, it's also worth considering at what point even small amounts of melamine -- or any other dangerous ingredient or pollutant -- become dangerous to us. And then asking ourselves, how much we are willing to pay to ensure that we don't incur other, hidden costs in the future?

The FDA is also apparently currently researching whether its standards for acceptable levels of melamine, listed as below 2.5 parts per million (ppm), are appropriate. Meanwhile, amidst the melamine crisis in China, there has been some talk there of banning it from foods completely. That sounds akin to proposing that China stop producing pirated DVDs.

The blame game doesn't work. When it comes to those foods likely to have toxic ingredients in America, China, wherever, the solutions must be found at home first. Is more regulation the answer? Better labeling? More inspections? Improved education of consumers about the risks? In China, where citizens are getting more information and growing more skeptical and demanding more from their government than ever, all of those things are afoot. And what about in the U.S.?

Americans and Chinese may or may not get stricter regulations, but let's hope at least one benefit emerges from all the melamine scares. Perhaps we will all be more likely to find out and think about where our food comes from, where our everything comes from -- and also what we can actually do to improve it, and what we're willing to do.

It's a lot to chew on, and it can be hard to swallow too. But sometimes the stuff we don't like to eat can be quite healthy for us in the long run.

Also see
The FDA's FAQ on Melamine, the EPA on Nutrient Management and Fertilizers, All Roads Lead to China on what foods might be worth avoiding in China and Planet Green

Also on TreeHugger

Melamine
American Food System Fertilized With Industrial Chemical Melamine
Got Melamine? 53,000 Chinese Children Did - In Their Milk

Tainted Pet Food: We Could Be Next.
Update on Tainted Pet Food: We Are Next

Food
Book Review: The Omnivore's Dilemma
Obama Cites Michael Pollan's "Sun-Food" Agenda

Tags: Agriculture | China

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