The Blog | David Goldstein: Melamine-Spiking "Widespread" In China; Human Food Broadly Contaminated | The Huffington PostAnd who has been suffocating all federal regulatory agencies since taking office in 2000? Gee, I wonder who.
... Tomorrow the New York Times will report from China, detailing how nitrogen-rich melamine scrap, produced from coal, is routinely ground into powder and mixed into low-grade wheat, corn, soybean or other proteins to inflate the protein analysis of animal feed:The melamine powder has been dubbed "fake protein" and is used to deceive those who raise animals into thinking they are buying feed that provides higher nutrition value."The practice is widespread in China," the Times reports, and has been going on "for years." And it is not just wheat, corn, rice and soybean proteins that should be suspect, but the animals who feed on it, including all imported Chinese pork, poultry, farm-raised fish, and their various by-products. Despite FDA and USDA efforts to allay concerns about consuming melamine-tainted meat, the health effects are unstudied, and the permissible level is zero. If China could impose a three-year (and counting) ban on the import of U.S. beef after a single incident of Mad Cow disease, then surely the U.S. would be justified in imposing a ban on Chinese vegetable protein and livestock products due to such a prevalent, industrywide contamination.
"It just saves money," says a manager at an animal feed factory here. "Melamine scrap is added to animal feed to boost the protein level."
The practice is widespread in China. For years animal feed sellers have been able to cheat buyers by blending the powder into feed with little regulatory supervision, according to interviews with melamine scrap traders and agricultural workers here.
[...] Many animal feed operators advertise on the Internet seeking to purchase melamine scrap. And melamine scrap producers and traders said in recent interviews that they often sell to animal feed makers.
"Many companies buy melamine scrap to make animal feed, such as fish feed," says Ji Denghui, general manager of the Fujian Sanming Dinghui Chemical Company. "I don't know if there's a regulation on it. Probably not. No law or regulation says 'don't do it,' so everyone's doing it. The laws in China are like that, aren't they? If there's no accident, there won't be any regulation."
And if in the coming weeks this ban is finally imposed, the question we must ask government regulators is... why so late? Why did they wait until our children licked the last remaining drop of bacon fat off their fingers before alerting the public to the potential health risk, however low? It seems inconceivable that the regulators tasked with overseeing the safety and purity of our nation's food supply did not at least imagine the potential scope of this crisis back in early March when they first learned that Chinese wheat gluten was poisoning dogs and cats. Indeed, the very fact that they were so quick to focus in on melamine as the adulterating agent suggests they at least suspected what they were facing.
It may make for entertaining TV, but popular shows like CSI get forensic toxicology exactly backwards. You don't run a substance through a mass spectrometer and 30 seconds later get a complete readout of its chemical makeup. Rather, you painstakingly look for specific chemicals or groups of chemicals one at a time, until you find the offending toxin. Once you get beyond the basic "tox screen," forensics is as much art as science -- investigators use evidence and intuition to narrow the search to those compounds that are most likely to be the culprit.
And so it begs the question as to why -- in the face of an apparent wheat gluten contamination that reportedly killed nine out of twenty dogs and cats in Menu Foods' quarterly taste test -- would FDA scientists test for melamine, a chemical widely believed to be nontoxic?
Why? Because they thought they might find it.
Lacking adequate cooperation from FDA officials one is constantly forced to speculate, but given the circumstances it is reasonable to assume that the search for melamine was prompted by the "nitrogen spiking" theory, rather than the other way around. Based on their knowledge of the evidence, Chinese agricultural practices, the globalizing food industry, and perhaps prior history, the FDA hypothesized that unscrupulous Chinese manufacturers may have intentionally adulterated low quality wheat gluten in an effort to pass it off as a high-protein, high-value product. And nothing would do the job better than melamine.
According to one synthetic organic chemist, melamine is by far the perfect candidate. It is high in nitrogen (66-percent by weight), nonvolatile (ie, it doesn't explode,) and dirt cheap. It is also -- at least according to both the scientific literature and chemical supply catalogs -- widely considered to be nontoxic. For FDA officials, the mystery never seemed to be how melamine made its way into wheat, rice and corn protein, but rather, why it was suddenly killing dogs and cats.
The technical answer may center on the unexpected interaction between melamine, cyanuric acid, and other melamine by-products, but the practical answer may be much more pedestrian. Some samples of adulterated wheat gluten reportedly tested as high as 6.6-percent melamine by weight, an off the chart concentration that was likely the accidental result of some less than thorough mixing. Had this accident never occurred -- had cats, with their sensitive renal systems, not been the canary in the coal mine of melamine toxicity -- we might never have known that our children and our pets were being slowly poisoned by Chinese capitalism.
Well, despite the FDA's best efforts, now we know.
This story is not going to go away. It's a good time to be an American organic food farmer.