Melamine Scandal Widens

chinese-babyFour infants in China have died and at least 53,000 are reportedly ill, many seriously so, having been fed milk powder contaminated with the industrial chemical melamine. A three-year old girl in Hong Kong is also ill, but has now been released from hospital, she was the first reported case outside mainland China. Major formula milk producer Nestle says none of its products in China has been contaminated with melamine, although the Hong Kong government says it has found the contaminant in the company’s milk formula.

I guess it’s no surprise that this scandal has emerged after, rather than before or during, the Olympic Games, but that is not something that would be peculiar to China. Governments the world over try to manage bad news and China certainly does not have a monopoly on cover-ups. If melamine is the primary contaminant, then regardless of claims that other compounds may be present, long-term use (six months or so) would be enough for this toxic compound to accumulate in an infant and lead to toxic effects such as kidney stones. The LD50, or acute toxic dose is not entirely relevant if an infant is being fed contaminated milk day after day. Incidentally, LD50 is a measurement per kilogram of body mass, so it is not higher for people than it is for rats, although it may be different because of differences in our body’s biochemistry.

I used to use an analytical instrument when I worked part-time in quality control in a milk-processing plant during my early post-student days. The machine could give you an almost instantaneous printout of fat, protein and sugar levels in the milk passing through the dairy. Those in QC also had to look at the milk for colour and quality and smell and taste it to check for taints (from pipe disinfectants, bacterial action, or contaminants). Indeed, one of the qualifications for the job was to have a palate sensitive enough to detect phenolic (smoky) compounds down to a few parts. It would usually have been quickly apparent if there was a problem with any incoming milk supply and I cannot see how others in the supply chain in China were not duplicitous in this conspiracy.

There could, of course, be other contaminants, I alluded to that in the original melamine in milk post. If someone is unscrupulous enough to add melamine to baby milk to falsify protein levels, then there’s no reason to think that they would use expensive chemically pure material. This would go some way to answering one of the questions asked by a commenter on the original post. Apparently, the Chinese government reported findings 2565 ppm or 0.25% of melamine in Sanlu’s milk powder. The cost of melamine is relatively high, so what would be the economic justification for such an irresponsible act if it were only increasing the apparent protein level by 1.2%?

The melamine may have been obtained from low-quality sources that are themselves contaminated with other toxic compounds, or it may be high-quality melamine, but stolen to order at some point in the supply chain? It has been suggested that other contaminants may be urea and aminopterin, but I have not seen any official note on that anywhere.

Melamine decomposes on heating, so one commenter on the original post was curious as to how does melamine survive the pasteurization and evaporation processes without decomposition used to make milk powder from raw milk.

Apparently, melamine has been mentioned in dispatches across China for more than 15 years, why is it that a pet food scare in 2007, and now this infant formula milk scandal are the only times that the western media has covered the problem?

nissin-cha-cha-dessertIt is becoming apparent that contaminated baby formula is not the only problem. Milk, ice cream, yoghurt, confectionery such as chocolates, biscuits and sweets, as well as any foods containing milk from China have been banned from import into Singapore after the country’s agri-food and veterinary authority found melamine in imported samples. Similarly, Taiwanese authorities seized imported products after notification of contamination from Beijing earlier this month. Japan has recalled various products. Canada’s Food Inspection Agency has warned citizens not to eat a dessert – Nissin Cha Cha Dessert – imported from China that has been found to be contaminated with melamine. The authorities in the Philippines are currently testing.

It is curious, but perhaps not surprising, that the Chinese authorities say not a single hospitalisation case has any connection with contaminated milk. Fonterra, parent company of milk producer Sanlu which is at the centre of the scandal says the whole debacle is one of sabotage and that there is no point in the production process at which melamine could have been added. Fonterra chief executive Andrew Ferrier claims an unknown third party put the banned chemical melamine into raw milk supplied to Sanlu. However, the company new about the contamination on August 2, just ahead of the Olympic Games, and claims that Chinese regulations prevented it from going public at the time.

RELATED: Melamine in Milk, this was the original item I posted on the melamine in milk scandal. I’ve also added an UPDATE: Milky Melamine, dated 2008-09-29.

32 thoughts on “Melamine Scandal Widens”

  1. I’ve been living in China for over 6 years and it’s just horrific how greedy the Chinese are; and how careless they are that it doesn’t matter if they hurt people as long as they make money. There’s always a cover-up … from AIDS, to SARS, now to this. I’m sure there’s alot more the Chinese Government has covered up that we all just don’t know about. Something should be done about this … China needs to be more transparent and done so in a much timelier fashion. It would be great if we could just boycott China for awhile …. that way would surely get them to listen … but that’s just not going to happen when so much is a stake for business people and governements alike.

  2. Everheard Chinese Nationals arguing ?

    farmer milk fat ……………2.60 yuan

    company …………………no 2.20kg

    Farmer screw You ! ………2.60..


    farmer ……..ok

    adds melamine and water to milk hehe………………..screw everyone!

  3. Offy, you’re pretty well-informed on these subjects, benefiting as you do, I assume, from an advanced education, free access to Western news sources (dodgy enough, for all their supposed superiority to Eastern), and enough of that Western prosperity to have the leisure to pursue these things. I’m unable to assume that the actors in the case at hand have all these advantages. The effects of actions like these depend on concentrations of toxins as they arise over time among victims whose nature, age, location, diet and so on are unlikely to be known with any precision to the actors.

    The assumption that people know what you (think you) know is unfounded. What they know, if anything, may (conveniently) be totally opposite to what you know, and guess what? You might very well BOTH be wrong – the facts of science have made fools of all of us, and will continue to do so. As for their innocence, be reminded, I make no claim that they in any genuine way care for the well-being of their victims. The well-being of their victims comes into their considerations only as it pertains (see my previous comment) to the actors’ continuing well-being.

    Maybe it’s like disposing of cyanide on the Interstate (or Motorway) by dribbling it out of moving trucks (or lorries). The gangsters who do this don’t know whom, when, or even whether they’re poisoning someone. But they do know they can collect a fee for doing this, and as for the poor bastard driving behind them, well, good luck, buddy (drive carefully)!

  4. For some unknown reason, I’m not grasping the logic intended.

    In 2007 during the pet food recall it was pretty clear that MARC (melamine & related compounds) was toxic.

    In 2007 during the Thailand deaths of thousands of baby pigs <(genetically similar to humans) it became pretty MARC was toxic.

    In 2007 China executed Zheng, the former head of its food & drug administration, and gave Cao, his subordinate, a reprieve.

    In 2008 it seems pretty clear that anyone who used MARC had some knowledge that toxicity was an issue, and therefore coming to the conclusion that they innocently added MARC is not a logical conclusion.

    What is a logical conclusion, when looking at the overall picture, is that Global Trade agreements and the Global Economy often put Science in the backseat (or buried) due to politics.

  5. The presence of morally valuational terms (unscrupulous, irresponsible) remains a consistent tracer for non sequiturs and untraceable logic, this particular post offering:

    If someone is unscrupulous enough to add melamine to baby milk to falsify protein levels, then there’s no reason to think that they would use expensive chemically pure material. This would go some way to answering one of the questions asked by a commenter on the original post. Apparently, the Chinese government reported findings 2565 ppm or 0.25% of melamine in Sanlu’s milk powder. The cost of melamine is relatively high, so what would be the economic justification for such an irresponsible act if it were only increasing the apparent protein level by 1.2%?

    Yes, there are reasons why a person, scrupulous or otherwise, might favor a more-expensive protein-indication booster. I’ll spell some out for the unimaginative. Let’s say we want to boost the protein level in our product but we don’t want to hurt anybody. Is that possible, or must all fudging always be malevolent? The desire not to hurt anyone isn’t even necessary for selecting an innocuous booster – all that’s necessary is a desire to avoid detection, and not hurting anyone is a very good start in that direction. Killing or even sickening one’s customers is also very poor business practice, an oversight I might ascribe to a self-anointed scientist, but never to a sharp Chinese entrepreneur.

    How does 0.25% melamine content become 1.2% (apparent) protein boost? There must be data (or speculation) elsewhere (up the Comments thread?) linking these two figures. Continuing with the non sequiturs, if a 1.2% protein boost is so paltry, why would it have been done in the first place? Pure malevolence, unrelated to any pecuniary gain or desire to boost protein? An enemy of Peace, Justice, and the Chinese Way of Life? Maybe the 1.2% boost (if, indeed, that’s what it was – I think we’re reverse-engineering here) was that slight nudge that made the difference between acceptance and rejection of a huge batch of product. Plenty of economic motivation in that scenario, unless I’ve forgotten the meaning of the word.

    The analysis on this site might benefit, it continues to look to me, by a steep reduction in the level of dudgeon. A little more attention to logic might even ensue automatically.

  6. This is a huge lesson to greedy companies who do not wish to operate in their own countries; who do not want to pay their own populations a good wage; who move offshore to amass larger profits by paying less to workers in countries which do not enforce transparent, rigorous standards. The shame is that the innocent are the first to learn this nasty lesson.

  7. Hmm… I’m wondering if this and this may be of help in detecting melamine and/or cyanuric acid contamination. Of course, since this was meant for aqueous solution (swimming pool testing, specifically), I’m not too sure if there may be things in milk that can interfere. Otherwise, it looks simple enough.

  8. @Laura,

    This is the most current research that I’m aware of and it’s from June 2008. In it is a Urine test for early biomarkers of melamine/cyaruic acid.
    So far I’ve not found a lab for pets, and the notation (on page 15 which shows the test)indicated the FDA is, uh, working on evaluation of the human biomarkers.

    I hope that perhaps you can find some folks that are able to answer you from some of the links.

    NTP Research Concept: Melamine/Cyanuric Acid
    Gonçalo Gamboa da Costa, Ph.D.
    National Center for Toxicological Research, FDA
    NTP Board of Scientific Counselors Meeting,
    June 11-12 2008, Research Triangle Park, NC

  9. @ Laura

    Sadly our government and most companies do not know the answer to that, nor have they shown very much inclination to find out. Our science is pretty archaic in that regards, if not totally insufficient.

    This is from last year:

    “The days of the fox guarding the henhouse, with corporate lobbyists writing the laws that regulate their industries, must end.”*Brent Blackwelder, Friends of the Earth, Sept. 22, 2008

  10. Does anyone here have information on chronic exposure to levels below that causing acute toxicity? I know many people who lived in China (with babies/children) and are extremely concerned their families may have been chronically exposed. How much and for how long would it take to develop the reported potential fertility, cancer, etc. issues? And are these low risk events, or not?

  11. At the same time Chinese Authorities were trying to eradicate all stray animals because they had a rabies epidemic one year before the Olympics. Because of the finding of aminopterin I thought
    they had used the poison (in gluten) to cull the animals and by some terrible mistake it got shipped to Menu Foods.

  12. Today, Bloomberg reports that China has pulled more than 7,000 tonnes of tainted dairy products from shops as New Zealand’s Fonterra Cooperative Group criticized an “appalling'” delay by its Chinese affiliate in reporting complaints of sick infants.

    As South Africa adds its name to the list of countries that could not possibly be affected, the New Zealand Herald reports that “milk sweets” on sale in NZ have been found to contain unacceptably high levels of melamine.

    Associated Press says the scandal lays bare the Chinese government’s regulatory shortcomings.

  13. My labrador received tainted dog food last year. After making dog our own dog food for almost a year he has gotten better but is half blind, diabetic and has some liver problems. He is only 9 and has to be given insulin twice a day. Melamine is really bad stuff. I can only imagine the ongoing problem these infants will have

  14. baby should stop been feed any kinds of milk powder after their mum breast feed them at least 6 month according to the natural way.there are alot af way feeding the newborn baby,all artificial milk powder are toxin and very acidic ,the high protein are acidic and will harm the baby immune system and lead to all kinds of diaseses.please go back to nature of eating and drinking.drinking freash milk from cows and goats are the right way or also not everyday,go for a vegan diet.anybdy needs my help to overcome the milk problem and information to overcome it please email to me .

  15. Jamez,

    Aminopterin degrades in the light.

    Since protocols didn’t account for that, I’d not be so quick to say it was an issue at the NY lab… it just as easily could have been protocols across the board.

  16. Previously I commented: The New York State Department of Agriculture made the initial finding of aminopterin in wheat gluten added to pet food, purchased by Menu Foods from a Chinese supplier.
    At the same time Chinese Authorities were trying to eradicate all stray animals because they had a rabies epidemic one year before the Olympics. Because of the finding of aminopterin I thought
    they had used the poison (in gluten) to cull the animals and by some terrible mistake it got shipped to Menu Foods.
    I am sorry to have suggested the same gluten (by similar mishap) was used in infant formula.
    It Just does not seem possible.
    I guess the Dept. of Agriculture could have also made an error in their findings possibly due to
    equipment failure or something. If so, it may not happen again since New York State Agriculture
    Commissioner Patrick Hooker today (05/06/2008) announced the State’s decision to rebuild the
    New York State Food Laboratory in the capital district. The food lab provides expert analytical testing in support of food safety and security programs throughout the state. The 2006 – 2007
    state budget included a $40 million re-appropriation for the construction of the New York State
    Laboratory. The Dept. of Agriculture and Markets will begin work immediately with The New York
    State Office of General Services to identify a location within the capital district suitable for the
    new lab.
    If they would have had that new lab and found Melamine it sure would have saved me
    a lot of typing.

  17. My friend Andrew Sun, a 25-year old chemistry student, wrote a post recently entitled A chemist’s day in China. In his latest post, he says “I just haven’t got the courage to know more” …

  18. Paulo,
    And then there’s the contaminated blood market (HIV) China, the salmonella contaminated pet food (see CDC report PA salmonella – not all that caused illness was recalled & that impacted children), tracking the salmonella “tomatoes”, the dioxin-like pcb contamination of copper sulfate (vitamins & animal feed premixes)’s become quite a substantial list – most of which you wouldn’t take note of if you weren’t trying to stay alert.

    Pet Owners are a somewhat paranoid bunch now & justifiably so… We’ve become accustomed to being told “you’re the only complaint” “we’ve had no complaints” “that’s proprietary”. Sending food to the pet food companies and they tell us nothing. So, private testing seems to be the only answer.

    Right now, a group of folks are examining private testing of some milk powder products in the US.

  19. @Offy I didn’t say melamine degraded on pasteurisation, it was another commenter asking whether it could. It’s quite bizarre, all this almost makes the bisphenol A (BPA) issue look like a decoy!

    @Paulo – Grid is the drive? Not sure what you mean?

  20. [quote]David Bradley said,

    September 22, 2008 at 12:01 pm

    Offy, thanks for the additional information. I reckon you’re right, what I was getting at is the fact that’s it not been widely known.

    As a pet owner that struggled thru most of 2007 with this issue, the lack of attention from the media was frustrating and so was the lack of response from the FDA.

    One reporter that I had conversations with told me early on:

    “We actually had a group of Chinese journalists at __ (redacted -their office) on __ (redacted-day of the week) and one of my colleagues asked them about the melamine. They said it’s in everything. FDA probably doesn’t want to cause widespread panic. But all of this raises a lot of questions that, at least, I know journalists are beginning to look into.”

    With that, and how slow and totally untransparent the FDA/CVM and pet food companies were at helping even with over 18,000 calls, we can only hope that our food safety system gets unstuck. It’s been sitting stagnant and the FDA merged the FDAAA act into the AFSIS.. so we’ve had only lipservice to protecting animals feeds & pet foods for adulterants on this scale. They’ve already “worked” on AFSIS for over 5 years…. IMO, we’re in deep trouble as the industries and lobbyists are the ones making the guidelines.. ergo, the government has abdicated responsibility to protecting Americans and seem to be dedicated to protecting industries.

    What happens now?

    It appears that scientists and the media are our only true hopes. The Chinese milk scandal broke thanks to a blogger. I doubt the US is in any better shape.

  21. These are acts of terror, first was the pet food, second heparin now baby formula. Why is take so long to world reacts? Like the finantial markets, grid is the drive.

  22. Where do you find that melamine breaks down during pasturization? I’ve missed that.

    Starting back with the statement in China that they added tripolycynamide and later they said that formaldehyde & other chemicals were used to liquify melamine (so that’s part of the resin process too which can also include ethylene glycol).

    In the current Chinese milk scandal they found the adulteration was up to 25% by weight and guess what was found during the pet food recall …”total adulterant levels in the protein concentrate ran as high as 25% by weight”

    “CYANAMIDE, NC NH 2j the amide of normal cyanic acid, obtained by the action of ammonia on cyanogen chloride, bromide or iodide, or by the desulphurization of thio-urea with, mercuric oxide; it is generally prepared by the latter process. It forms white crystals, which melt at 40° C., and are readily soluble in water, alcohol and ether. Heated above its melting point it polymerizes to di-cyandiamide (CN2H2)2, which at 150° C. is transformed into the polymer n-tri-cyantriamide or melamine (CN 2 H 2) 3, the mass solidifying.”

    This indicates that the mass solidfying at 150degrees. What is the temp on pasturization?

    The pet food recall IMO shows that melamine doesn’t break down at LACF (low acid canning) temps or extrusion temps.

  23. Petfood in 2004. I seriously doubt it was the first or that 2007 was the last time.

    Outbreaks of renal failure associated with melamine and cyanuric acid in dogs and cats in 2004 and 2007.

    Athens Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Georgia, Athens, GA, 30602.

    Sixteen animals affected in 2 outbreaks of pet food-associated renal failure (2 dogs in 2004; 10 cats and 4 dogs in 2007) were evaluated for histopathologic, toxicologic, and clinicopathologic changes. All 16 animals had clinical and laboratory evidence of uremia, including anorexia, vomiting, lethargy, polyuria, azotemia, and hyperphosphatemia. Where measured, serum hepatic enzyme concentrations were normal in animals from both outbreaks. All animals died or were euthanized because of severe uremia. Distal tubular lesions were present in all 16 animals, and unique polarizable crystals with striations were present in distal tubules or collecting ducts in all animals. The proximal tubules were largely unaffected. Crystals and histologic appearance were identical in both outbreaks. A chronic pattern of histologic change, characterized by interstitial fibrosis and inflammation, was observed in some affected animals. Melamine and cyanuric acid were present in renal tissue from both outbreaks. These results indicate that the pet food-associated renal failure outbreaks in 2004 and 2007 share identical clinical, histologic, and toxicologic findings, providing compelling evidence that they share the same causation.
    PMID: 17823396 [PubMed – in process]

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