Babies have died in China from the same chemical that was found to be killing cats and dogs in the US, now there's admission that this same poison, melamine, has been routinely sold as "protein powder" and introduced into many different human foods.
The recent outbreak of infant poisonings due to tainted milk formula in China is said to have affected one out of every four infants in the Beijing area of China. The formula was tainted with a chemical called melamine. This is the exact same chemical that caused a spate of pet food poisonings among domestic dogs and cats in the USA in 2007. At the time, the FDA said that melamine contaminated “proteins” had been found in other animal feed that had been processed into human food and sold. In low doses, the occasional ingestion of melamine isn’t all that harmful, but taken regularly over a period of time or in higher concentrations, melamine poisoning causes kidney stones and can lead to fatal complications, particularly in the very young. How did this happen and what other foods are at risk?
How Did Melamine Get Added to Food Products?
Melamine, according to the International Herald Tribune, is a waste product derived from the processes used to create fertilizer and plastics. That is it was a waste product until someone had a bright idea. Since Melamine is mostly nitrogen and most tests of animal feed protein look for nitrogen content, why not increase the apparent nitrogen content of these feeds by adding melamine. Instead of paying to have it hauled away, melamine can be sold as a protein powder additive. Brilliant, right? Except that it has killed four babies in China and sickened thousands and thousands more.
Did the Pet Food Poisoning Really Stop?
When melamine was found in pet food protein additives, there was some outrage and China pledged to increase its quality control to prevent this sort of thing from happening again. Maybe they did take steps to stop melamine from being added to rice gluten and exported for use in pet foods. On the other hand, my cat recently was diagnosed with a urinary tract blockage and infection, a condition which could have been fatal if we had not brought the cat to the doctor in time. Coincidentally, another writer with whom I occasionally correspond, told me that her small dog had recently been diagnosed with kidney stones as well. While kidney stones do occur in animals and people for a variety of reasons, melamine poisoning could certainly have caused the condition. So is pet food safer now? Probably, but who knows.
Melamine Continued to be Added to Human Food
We do know that even a year after melamine was found to be the culprit in the pet food poisonings, melamine continued to be sold as “protein powder” and was added to infant milk formula in China. Now, comes word that melamine falsely labeled as “protein powder” has been routinely added to all sorts of animal feeds in China and the practice has continued right up to today. This practice has been broad-based in China even though melamine is prohibited from human and animal feed products by Chinese law.
Melamine Contaminates Fish, Dairy, Meats, and Other Food Products
Melamine has been added to chicken feed in such high concentrations that it has now been found in four different brands of eggs in Shanghai markets alone. These eggs were being sold for human consumption. As authorities, investigated the melamine tainted eggs, they have apparently uncovered the broader practice of selling melamine as “protein powder” for many different animal feeds. Reports say the practice started with fish food, then moved to the poultry and dairy industries. Although the amount of melamine that makes it through the animal and into the human food chain results in lower concentrations, it is a chemical that can build up over time. Detailed studies of long-term low dose ingestion of melamine in humans were not available, so I cannot say how dangerous it is to eat say shrimp or fish imported from China if they were feed with this “melamine enhanced” feed. Given the emerging scope of the problem there, and to be on the safe side, one must assume that any fish, poultry or dairy products exported from China are quite possibly contaminated with melamine.
How Much Melamine Has Been Added to American Foods?
One must assume that any commercial animal feed or protein additives such as rice or wheat gluten that was exported from China is similarly contaminated. That means that fish, poultry and dairy farms in the USA and elsewhere may have inadvertently contaminated the human food chain in this country with melamine. We don’t know how wide-spread the problem is in the USA, but we do have the admission from the FDA that melamine contaminated rice gluten did in fact make it into the human food chain in their update dated April of 2007.
Premeditated Poisoning on a Massive Scale
The problem is caused, in part, by the basic consumer desire for ever cheaper goods. Melamine “protein powder” costs less than actual protein powder, companies in China or the USA that purchased this fake protein could lower their prices or increase their profits. Up until the outbreak of pet poisonings in early 2007, it could be just barely argued that no one knew that melamine in the levels being added to food products could be harmful. Although even then, it’s health effects in long term or high dosage exposure were known to anyone who cared to research the matter. However, after the pet food incidents, the producers, sellers, and probably most of the buyers of this melamine protein powder must have known that there was a high risk of injuring and killing animals and people who ate these melamine contaminated products over a long period of time. Yet babies died when the practice continued.
Punishing Those Responsible
I have long thought that many of China’s legal punishments were too harsh as I have read of the death penalty being issued for cases of bureaucratic fraud in that country. In this case, I, for one, would not object if every one of the people responsible for intentionally selling a chemical known to be poisonous as protein powder additive for babies and livestock were to be subject to the harshest penalties under Chinese law.
How Widespread is This Problem in the USA and Elsewhere?
How do we know this only happened in China? Surely other countries are under the same pressures to reduce costs and find alternative uses for waste products. How do we know that melamine is the only contaminant being added to the human food chain? We have seen the EPA flat out lie to us at the request of the White House about the safety of air in New York after 9/11 as documented here, here, here, and here. We’ve seen the FDA botch a ruling on the safety of BPA in baby bottles as documented here and here. So we are left to ask, without any reliable answers, just how widespread is the melamine contamination of American livestock feed? What other dangerous chemicals are being added without our knowledge to our food chain. What else is the FDA and EPA not telling us that may sicken or kill us, our pets, and our children?
What Can We Do To Help Ensure Our Own Safety from These Poisons?
It’s impossible for most of us to entirely remove ourselves from these risks, but we can cut some of that risk by growing our own vegetables, or buying from small local producers who we can ask directly about additives. Buy meats and dairy products from small local farms too, and ask them about the feeds and chemicals they use. Certified organic foods are likely to be safer from chemical contaminants. Free range animals are likely to receive less of their diet from commercial feeds and therefore likely to have lower levels of contamination. You can also remove most contaminants from drinking water through the use of a good reverse osmosis filter. Meanwhile, write your congressmen and tell them you want to take the politics out of the EPA and FDA; Our health, and even our lives depend upon those organizations giving us complete and accurate information that is unfiltered by political pressures.