Monday, January 5, 2009

Is that Melamine in our Food Supply?

There was another one today. In all, that makes at least three in December, and one in early January. What I am talking about is Food and Drug Administration (FDA) alerts about yet another melamine-contaminated food product.

Melamine? Wasn't that the contaminant in pet food in 2007 that sickened some 8,500 of our beloved cats and dogs and other pets and killed many of them? Yes, it was. Wasn't it also the industrial chemical that got into milk in China (and maybe a bunch of other foods as well, such as eggs, meat, and soy). Yes, it is. The official estimates on the China incident: about 30,000 or so infants sickened, and about 6 killed. I would bet my beloved new Breville super-automatic toaster and electric kettle (that my son bought me for Christmas) that this is a huge underestimation.

So what is a nitrogen-based compound used in making plastic items, such as eating utensils and laminates, whiteboard wall paneling, flooring and Formica countertops doing in food? The answer is greed...A get-rich quick scheme by unscrupulous people who thought they could get away with a little sleight-of-hand. This was not a case of turning water into wine, but of turning water into milk (with a little help from melamine). And you thought the latest financial scams were bad?

Back to melamine in the U.S. food supply. Bottom line: it's there, but we don't yet know all the food products that are involved, or how bad it will be for us. The FDA testing is ongoing. It takes time. Hang in there. We'll keep you informed. Just waiting for those scientists to get over their vacation sloth and for the new and more honest administration to come in, so we get the real facts.

But why? Why is melamine in our food? Well, that's what globalization gets you. We love imported foods, and food manufacturers love cheap imported ingredients. It all translates into better profits. China is a great soure of both. And, no prejudice involved, but that's where it began. But it could have been some other chemical in some other country. There are plenty to choose from.

The warnings are dribbling in to the public, except that most of us remain blissfully ignorant. Not that it matters much. By the time the warnings are issued the products have usually been on store shelves for months, and most have been eaten. Yumm...Did you notice that lovely crunch of plastic in your chocolate bar? Feel an odd kind of tickle in your kidneys a few days later?

Let's take today's announcement. National Brands recalled topaz wafer rolls. Going backwards, the alert on December 20th, announced the discovery of melamine in gourmet cocoa products. On December 18th it was Wonderfarm biscuits. On December 6 it was found in chocolate bars held by cute teddy bears that were sold at Walgreens. And yes, in November it was found in low levels in three major brands of infant formula sold in the U.S. In between there have been other incidents. Most of the melamine contaminated products were sold in several states or nationwide. And it is not just one food manufacturer or distributor involved, but many.

What makes it worse, is that most of the contaminated products identified so far are eaten by infants or children, who are more vulnerable. Of course, all the announcements downplay the risks and say no illnesses have been reported. But let's not be fooled. As we found out in the case of melamine in pet food, it can take a while for melamine to create kidney and other problems. And it takes a lot longer to track it back to a specific food product. As for the low dosages, let's hope they are too low to do any harm. But it might be a good idea to remember that findings in other countries have shown that the levels in a single type of produce - such as chocolate bars or candy - can vary tremendously from one chocolate bar or candy to the next. There are also a lot of things we still don't understand about how melamine works in the body, what the cumulative effect is, how melamine and cyanuric acid work together, and in what situations melamine is most likely to be dangerous.

So how do we avoid it? At this point I would love to give a magic answer. But frankly, I don't know. Much of this melamine contaminant is probably reaching us through foods produced in China, or, ingredients produced in China that are then used here in the U.S. Some is also coming from other countries that have imported melamine contaminated ingredients and used them to produce foods that are then exported to the U.S. One such recent case is the 'his and hers' gourmet cocoa products produced in Quebec, Canada.

Perhaps the best way to be safe is not to eat any manufactured food products that might contain milk ingredients. But I would not be at all surprised if it did not soon turn up in soy as well. Or, something else, like our eggs.

Stay tuned.

In the meantime: bon apetit, buen provecho, guten appetit, bete'avon, buen appetito, kale orexe, itadakimas, est gesunterhayt, afyet olson, priiatnogo appetita, buon appetito.......Is that enough for now?



Anonymous said...


healthyeater said...

This is frightening! Food safety needs to be a priority for the Obama administration.