Melamine contamination shipped around the world

by Allison Sebolt
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In the weeks since news that numerous Chinese dairy processors tainted milk products with the industrial chemical melamine became public, the global impact of the situation has begun to surface.

While the original contaminated products in The People’s Republic of China were infant formula, the concern around the world has become more intense as dairy and milk ingredients obtained from the same Chinese dairy sources have been implicated.

According to the Associated Press, melamine contamination has killed 4 children and sickened 54,000 others, and melamine has been found in at least 100 samples from 265 batches tested in China.

According to the World Health Organization, the contamination happened in China as water was added to raw milk to increase its volume. As a result of being diluted, the milk has a lower protein concentration, and companies using the milk for further production normally check the protein levels through a test measuring nitrogen content. Because melamine is rich in nitrogen, adding it may increase the level of nitrogen leading to a false high protein reading.

Potential danger in the U.S.

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration has issued warnings for various products known to contain melamine. The most recent warning includes seven instant coffee and milk tea products from

Mr. Brown, which is produced by Taiwanese company King Car Food Industrial. The company used a non-dairy creamer contaminated with melamine manufactured by the Chinese company Shandong Duqing, Inc.

Several Blue Cat Flavor Drinks, which are distributed by Tristar Food Wholesale Co., Inc., have been recalled based on F.D.A. testing detecting melamine contamination.

Additionally, the California Department of Public Health and the New Zealand Food Safety Authority have reported testing of White Rabbit Creamy Candies has shown high levels of melamine contamination.

Elsewhere around the globe Japan has suspended imports of milk and milk products from China and pulled some snack products, and Hong Kong has found traces of melamine in Heinz baby cereal and Silang House steamed potato wasabi crackers.

Specifically, Japanese cream buns, meat buns and creamed corn crepes from Marudai Food Co. have been pulled, although there have been no reports of health problems from possible contamination. Taiwan also said three children and a mother have come down with kidney stones as a result of possible milk contamination.

Beyond these instances, the scandal continues to affect major food companies with international operations, causing them to distance themselves from the situation and assert the safety of their products.

Cadbury is pulling products from the China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Australia markets.

"We believe it is appropriate to take a precautionary step to withdraw from the market all of our Cadbury chocolate products that have been manufactured in Beijing pending further supply of fresh products," Cadbury said. "The products that are affected by this withdrawal include a range of Cadbury chocolate products and Choclairs, all produced in our Beijing plant. Cadbury products manufactured at our Beijing plant are only exported to Taiwan, Hong Kong and one product only to Australia."

Cadbury said no other products and countries are affected, and Chinese dairy products are not used in any other Cadbury products manufactured outside of China.

Nestle also has been affected as Taiwan’s Department of Health asked Nestle to temporarily delist Neslac and KLIM products made in China and sold in Taiwan. Nestle complied immediately, but said the levels of melamine detected in the products are so small they may be present in any food product.

"In order to be able to make the vital distinction between products made from milk adulterated with melamine and those containing traces of melamine occurring naturally in the general environment, standards setting limits for the presence of melamine in food are essential," Nestle said in a statement. "Nestle therefore welcomes the fact that Taiwan is currently considering such legislation but fails to understand why the authorities are asking Nestle to temporarily delist these products, which by their own admission are absolutely safe by any recognized international standards."

The Hershey Co. asserted it has never bought milk ingredients, including powdered milk, from China. Mars, Inc. said Mars China does not source any ingredients from factories found to be selling melamine-contaminated products. While there was some concern about Mars products at first, Mars said food safety regulators in Hong Kong, South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines confirmed the company’s products are safe.

How much is safe?

The F.D.A. came to the conclusion any level of melamine or melamine-related compounds in infant formula raises public health concerns as formula is often the sole source of nutrition for an infant, risks of the presence and co-ingestion of more than one melamine-tainted food, and the fact premature infants are often smaller and have immature kidney function and thus are more vulnerable to negative side effects from contamination. Kidney problems are a major health risk from melamine consumption.

The F.D.A. said in other food products the presence of melamine and melamine-related compounds below 2.5 parts per million does not raise concern. This is also based on a worst-case scenario when 50% of a diet is contaminated at this level.

The European Food Safety Authority estimated exposure to any potential melamine in chocolates and biscuits would not raise health concerns for adults. For children, the E.F.S.A. said consuming moderate amounts of biscuits, milk toffee and chocolate made with contaminated powder would not exceed safety levels, but children with a high daily consumption of those products would exceed safety levels.

Officials from the Chinese government have said it will overhaul its dairy industry and inspect every link to help restore public trust in Chinese-made products. Officials said the country’s dairy production and circulation has been "chaotic" with a lack of supervision.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Dairy Business News, October 2008, starting on page 10. Click here to search that archive.

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