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Melamine in the Global Food Supply

While melamine in the mainstream media seems to have quietened down in the last few days, there are still a few of us in the blogosphere attempting to unravel the tangle.

I first reported in my melamine in milk article (September 17) how the news broke that babies in China were somehow being poisoned by a contaminant in their formula milk powder. The contaminant was identified as melamine, an organic compound high in nitrogen and specifically amine groups that can dupe protein test equipment into thinking a product is rich in protein when it is not. Of course, the addition of non-nutritional organic compounds may fool the machine, but it does not fool the body of anyone eating the substance in their food and they will either be poisoned if the compound is itself toxic or suffer malnutrition. Infants, one might expect, would be particularly susceptible as they usually rely on a single food stuff – formula milk – for all their dietary requirements if they are not being breast-fed.

Nephrologist Robert Weiss, whom I interviewed for a follow-up item on the melamine toxicity article, told me that it is common to test for proteins using a simple test that detects amino groups (proteins are composed of amino acids). “Many non-protein compounds contain amino groups also (melamine is just one of those compounds). Some tests for proteins also are positive with ammonia, nitrates, and urea,” she says. “Unfortunately, none of these compounds can be used nutritionally speaking by animals or humans which ingest these compounds to build proteins. Therefore, these compounds have no nutritional value, are actually toxic and have no business being added to feed.”

One might suspect that manufacturers of these compounds as well as manufacturers of feed have learned how to outwit the somewhat simplistic tests for proteins that regulators use. “In learning how to outwit the tests in the interest of making a buck they have endangered the global food supply,” adds Weiss. It would be very interesting to know which companies are engaged in these practices or which are buying feed ingredients from companies engaged in such activities and so giving rise to the likes of the melamine contaminated food list. Perhaps this is simply an insidious symptom of the impending global recession, which is, as all recessions seem to be, founded on greed.

Weiss, who has ten years of experience in the pharmaceutical industry and is well aware of the chain of documentation required for drug production is “really amazed that we have less knowledge and control over ingredients and processing events in many of our foods.” Either way, the issue must be investigated and brought aggressively to the attention of legislators as well as consumers.

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