Melamine in dairy ingredients highlights food defense failures

by Keith Nunes
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The deliberate contamination of Chinese dairy products with melamine is a jarring reminder for food and beverage manufacturers of the role they ought to play in maintaining national as well as global food defense. While not so devastating as a terrorist attack, the event’s implications are equally far reaching. It has prompted national governments as well as food processors with global footprints to assess how they must strengthen their import programs and good manufacturing practices in order to prevent a similar incident, or worse, a deliberate attack.

In the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture made concerted efforts to ensure the U.S. food supply is protected. Programs were developed and implemented to aid processors in assessing vulnerabilities and shoring up internal controls. Under one initiative, food processors were charged with knowing that the suppliers of ingredients had implemented programs to ensure the quality of their ingredients and to prevent tampering. As the current situation indicates, work is still to be done in this area.

Envisioning a map of the world underscores the implications of the melamine contamination. It started in China, but promptly reached around the world to Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Australia, Canada, the United States and several European nations. While the contamination was meant to increase artificially the protein content of fluid milk in an effort to achieve a higher yield and to sell a watered-down product, the contaminated milk made its way into the manufacture of untold tons of dairy-based ingredients such as casein and whey protein. Those ingredients were then exported around the world for making value-added products such as yogurt, candy bars, instant coffee and biscuits.

This situation makes clear that prevention is a critical aspect of any food defense program, because there is little time to detect the contaminants once the affected ingredient enters the supply chain. Both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency have been forced into the unenviable positions of admitting many of the ingredients imported already have been used and many of the products consumed. The C.F.I.A., for example, attempted to track where imports of dairy-based ingredients had been distributed in Canada, but was unable to determine in which products the ingredients had been used.

The F.D.A. is in a similar situation and was left to issue a risk assessment that said the agency "is unable to establish any level of melamine and melamine-related compounds in infant formula that does not raise public health concerns." The F.D.A. did add that other food products with melamine levels below 2.5 parts per million do not raise safety concerns. The F.D.A.’s risk assessment prompted Representative Rosa L. DeLauro of Connecticut, a frequent critic of the F.D.A.’s food safety efforts, to issue a press release with the tartly worded headline: "F.D.A. to add melamine to Food Pyramid."

Ms. DeLauro is not the only member of Congress to take note of the current situation. Representatives John D. Dingell and Bart Stupak, both of Michigan, will hold hearings to address the situation and consider initiating country-of-origin labeling for all food products and further strengthening of U.S. import inspections.

While governments around the world spend increasing amounts of time and money ascertaining how each may prevent imports of tampered-with foodstuffs, the onus is on the food industry to further refine its quality assurance and purchasing practices. As the melamine incident reveals, there are gaps in the food defense plans of more than a few companies. The situation in China and elsewhere in the world is tragic and may not be ignored. By learning from these events, companies must move to close the gaps in their food defense efforts and strive to eliminate the possibility of such a situation ever happening again.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, October 14, 2008, starting on Page 9. Click
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