Got Melamine? 53,000 Chinese Children Did - In Their Milk

Image credit::Scrap melamine sample. New York Times

Exposure of Chinese infants and children to melamine-tainted milk turns out to have far been worse than was reported a few days ago. Nearly 53,000 are reported now to have been sickened; and the count will probably go up. Other countries are banning Chinese milk product imports. The damage to China's reputation will be lasting. AFP reports that:

China's tainted milk scandal spiralled into uncharted territory Monday with the government announcing that up to 53,000 children had been sickened and its top product-quality inspector sacked. In a dramatic update of previous figures, the health ministry said a total of 52,857 children were taken to hospital after drinking milk thought to have been contaminated by the industrial chemical melamine.
It is not China's risk alone. The tragedy is emblematic of the risk to all nations when government regulation is out of step with the hazards posed by the industrialization of food production. What can be China do to prevent more melamine contamination incidents?
Sacking a bureaucrat is not sufficient. A similar thing happened last spring with melamine-tainted pet food protein supplements made in China, which made their way into US sold pet foods. Shortly afterward, the New York Times added perspective with some investigative reporting.
For years, producers of animal feed all over China have secretly supplemented their feed with the substance, called melamine, a cheap additive that looks like protein in tests, even though it does not provide any nutritional benefits, according to melamine scrap traders and agricultural workers here.

It is unlikely that managing a commodity like melamine as a controlled substance will be sufficient. In China, melamine is made from feedstock produced at coal syn-gas plants. The government favors coal-based raw materials as an alternative to expensive petro-chemicals. Melamine is everywhere. Only a small amount is needed to fool a lab test: hence, it is very difficult to keep producers from accessing enough melamine to fulfill greedy intentions. From Wikipedia:
By early 2006, melamine production in mainland China is reported to be in "serious surplus".[58] In April 2007, DSM's melamine industry update painted a grave global picture.[59] Between 2002 and 2007, while the global melamine price remained stable, a steep increase in the price of urea (feedstock for melamine) has reduced the profitability of melamine manufacturing. Currently, China is the world's largest exporter of melamine, while its domestic consumption still grows by 10% per year.

Why does this happen?
Food and food additive producers add melamine to their products to "fake out" the lab test for total nitrogen commonly used as a secondary or "surrogate" indication of protein content.

With the pet food scandal, melamine addition allowed bulk protein supplement (gluten) distributors to charge more because the lab tests indicated relatively high (false) protein value.

It has been speculated that milk distributors in China had thinned their product with water, adding melamine to make it look like it had not been 'stepped on'.

The larger "why" question.
China's increasing appetite for dietary animal protein is going up just as it is for gasoline to satisfy the demand for western-style car ownership. Does this demand so greatly outstrip the ability to produce enough protein that the temptation to taint is irresistible?

Possible Interventions
Purchasing agents could specify maximum melamine content of purchased additives or foods, and demand an actual measurement of melamine.

Food inspectors could require random testing for melamine, stiffen penalties , and strengthen enforcement. Samples to test for melamine contamination would need to be taken prior to packaging and shipping of food products or food additives because, according to the Wikipedia entry:

... melamine resin is often used in food packaging and tableware, melamine at ppm level (1 part per million) in food and beverage has been reported due to migration from melamine-containing resins.[65]

Check out the Wikipedia entry for details of earlier records of melamine use in animal feed in the USA.

Bottom line: no protein rich foods from China for this writer. That includes vegetable as well as animal proteins. Soy products too.

Via::AFP, China toxic milk sickens 53,000 as scare spreads.

Via::NYT, Filler in Animal Feed Is Open Secret in China.

What else do we know about melamine?
Zak Designs Confetti - Recycled Melamine
Tainted Pet Food: We Could Be Next.
Materia's November Eco Materials
Update on Tainted Pet Food: We Are Next

Tags: China | Clean Coal