Monday, September 15, 2008

Contaminated infant formula in China

Chinese officials say more than 1,000 infants were sickened, and two died, in a recent scandal over melamine adulteration, which is being covered in the Washington Post, New York Times, and Associated Press. Part of the back story stems from international concern over watered down infant formula from China, with insufficient amounts of protein and other nutrients. Adding melamine can trick testing laboratories into thinking there is more protein than there really is. Unfortunately, the adulterated formula may be less nutritious and, at least in conjunction with other contaminants, melamine is implicated in kidney problems for infants. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned in 2004 against use of infant formula from a Chinese manufacturer, but formula from China may nevertheless be imported and sold in some specialty markets.

Marion Nestle, whose new book Pet Food Politics recounts an earlier melamine scandal in pet food, this week describes the implications of the new scandal in an interview on the Eating Liberally blog:
Astonished doesn’t begin to describe it. The point of The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine, the subtitle of Pet Food Politics, is that the 2007 pet food recalls were an early warning of disasters to follow. By the time the book went to press in May this year, we were already dealing with the heparin crisis. This was a completely analogous situation in which Chinese producers substituted chondroitin sulfate for heparin because the heparin assay only looks for sulfur, apparently. Melamine has a lot of nitrogen. Protein assays test for nitrogen and don’t care whether it comes from protein or melamine. Chondroitin sulfate and melamine are a lot cheaper than the drugs or food ingredients they replace.

In Pet Food Politics, I trace the use of melamine—fraudulent and not—back to the mid-1960s. David Barboza, the intrepid New York Times reporter based in China, actually got animal and pet food producers to confess that they had been fraudulently adding melamine to feed for years. My guess is that these producers had been adding it in lower doses, got greedy, and upped the dose or used sloppier formulations that contained cyanuric acid. You need a lot of melamine to damage kidneys. But when melamine is mixed with cyanuric acid, it crystallizes in kidneys at very low doses. If it could be added to food for cats, dogs, and farm animals, why not add it to other foods? If nobody is checking—which, apparently, nobody is--you have a good chance of getting away with it, especially if the animals are eating other foods as well.

But infant formulas? These are just like pet foods in that the animal or baby is completely dependent on the one product for complete nutrition. So as with pet foods, there is a good chance of doing great harm and getting caught. Officials didn’t get upset about pet foods because they view dogs and cats as “just pets.” Infant formulas get everyone’s attention. And you can find plenty of Chinese infant formula in Chinese markets in the U.S. It’s doubtful that getting rid of them would be on anyone’s priority list for enforcement.

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