Our Home-Grown Melamine Problem
By JAMES E. McWILLIAMS
Published: November 17, 2008
CHINA¹S food supply appears to be awash in the industrial chemical
melamine. Dangerous levels have been detected not only in milk and eggs,
but also in chicken feed and wheat gluten, meaning that melamine is
almost impossible to avoid in processed foods. Melamine in baby formula
has killed at least four infants in China and sickened tens of thousands
In response, the United States has blasted lax Chinese regulations,
while the Food and Drug Administration, in a rare move, announced last
week that Chinese food products containing milk would be detained at the
border until they were proved safe.
For all the outrage about Chinese melamine, what American consumers and
government agencies have studiously failed to scrutinize is how much
melamine has pervaded our own food system. In casting stones, we¹ve
forgotten that our own house has more than its share of exposed glass.
To be sure, in China some food manufacturers deliberately added melamine
to products to increase profits. Makers of baby formula, for example,
watered down their product, lowering the amount of protein and
nutrients, then added melamine, which is cheap and fools tests measuring
But melamine is also integral to the material life of any industrialized
society. It¹s a common ingredient in cleaning products, waterproof
plywood, plastic compounds, cement, ink and fire-retardant paint.
Chemical plants throughout the United States produce millions of pounds
of melamine a year.
Given the pervasiveness of melamine, it¹s always possible that trace
elements will end up in food. The F.D.A. thus sets the legal limit for
melamine in food at 2.5 parts per million. This amount is indeed
minuscule, a couple of sand grains in an expanse of desert that pose no
real threat to public health. Moreover, the 2.5 p.p.m. figure is
calculated for a person weighing 132 pounds ‹ a cautious benchmark given
that the average adult weighs 150 to 180 pounds.
But these figures obscure more than they reveal. First, while adults eat
about one-fortieth of their weight every day, toddlers consume closer to
one-tenth. Although scientists haven¹t measured the differential impact
of melamine on infants versus adults, it¹s likely that this intensified
ratio would at least double (if not quadruple) the impact of legal
levels of melamine on toddlers.
This doubled exposure might not land a child in the hospital, but it
could certainly contribute to the long-term kidney and liver problems
that we know are caused by chronic exposure to melamine.
On a more concrete note, melamine not only has widespread industrial
applications, but is also used to buttress the foundation of American
Fertilizer companies commonly add melamine to their products because it
helps control the rate at which nitrogen seeps into soil, thereby
allowing the farmer to get more nutrient bang for the fertilizer buck.
But the government doesn¹t regulate how much melamine is applied to the
soil. This melamine accumulates as salt crystals in the ground, tainting
the soil through which American food sucks up American nutrients.
A related area of agricultural concern is animal feed. Chinese eggs
seized last month in Hong Kong, for instance, contained elevated levels
of melamine because of the melamine-laden wheat gluten used in the feed
for the chickens that produced the eggs.
To think American consumers are immune to this unscrupulous behavior is
to ignore the Byzantine reality of the global gluten trade. Tracking the
flow of wheat gluten around the world, much less evaluating its quality,
is like trying to contain a drop of dye in a churning whirlpool.
More ominous, the United States imports most of its wheat gluten. Last
year, for instance, the F.D.A. reported that millions of Americans had
eaten chicken fattened on feed with melamine-tainted gluten imported
from China. Around the same time, Tyson Foods slaughtered and processed
hogs that had eaten melamine-contaminated feed. The government decided
not to recall the meat.
Only a week earlier, however, the F.D.A. had announced that thousands of
cats and dogs had died from melamine-laden pet food. This high-profile
pet scandal did not prove to be a spur to reform so much as a red
herring. Our attention was diverted to Fido and away from the animals we
happen to kill and eat rather than spoil.
Frightening as this all sounds, the concerned consumer is not completely
helpless. We can seek out organic foods, which are grown with fertilizer
without melamine ‹ unless that fertilizer was composted with manure from
animals fed melamine-laden feed (always possible, as the Tyson example
We could further protect ourselves by choosing meat from grass-fed or
truly free-range animals, assuming the grass was not fertilized with a
conventional product (something that¹s also very hard to know).
But as all the caveats above indicate, these precautions will only go so
far. Melamine, after all, points to the much larger relationship between
industrial waste and American food production. Regulations might be lax
when it comes to animal feed and fertilizer in China, but take a closer
look at similar regulations in the United States and it becomes clear
that they¹re vague enough to allow industries to ³recycle² much of their
waste into fertilizer and other products that form the basis of our
domestic food supply.
As a result, toxic chemicals routinely enter our agricultural system
through the back channels of this under-explored but insidious
So, sure, let¹s keep the heat on China. And, yes, let¹s take with a big
dose of skepticism the Chinese government¹s assurances that they¹re
improving the food supply.
At the same time, though, instead of delivering righteous condemnation,
the United States should seize upon the melamine scandal as an
opportunity to pass federal fertilizer standards backed by consistent
testing for this compound, which could very well be hidden in plain
James E. McWilliams, a history professor at Texas State University at
San Marcos, is the author of ³American Pests: The Losing War on Insects
From Colonial Times to DDT.²
Garden in shade zone 5 S Jersey USA
Boycott blueray seeems like Betamax scenario again.
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