Thousands of babies had apparently taken ill having drunk formula milk to which the organic compound melamine had been added. The melamine was being added by unscrupulous operatives somewhere in the milk supply chain, to artificially boost the nitrogen content of the product, and so spoof higher protein levels than are actually present.
Subsequently, lists of contaminated products appeared in the media and on the web and as the melamine scandal widened, the Chinese government issued an apology and promised to crack down on the problem.
However, with news this week that batches of eggs imported into Hong Kong from China have tested positive for melamine, which is suspected of causing kidney problems, it now appears that the compound is being added routinely to animal feed in China. According to the BBC, this news has been released into the Chinese state media by a government realising it has far less control over food standards that it ought to have.
The melamine scandal is not new. It is essentially an open secret in China that the compound is added to all kinds of foods, particularly animal feed and pet food to artificially inflate the protein readings at the so-called quality control stage. Melamine was at the heart of the petfood scandal in 2007, but that was simply the first time that the West learned of the problem. It seems obvious that melamine could have been in the food chain much longer than that.
But, whether the open secret of melamine in the food supply is actually as serious a problem as the media would have us believe is down to toxic dose. AP quotes Peter Dingle, a toxicologist from Murdoch University, Perth, Australia, who says that aside from the tainted baby formula that killed at least four Chinese infants and left 54,000 children hospitalized in September, it is unlikely humans will get sick from melamine. The amount of the chemical in a few servings of bacon, for instance, would simply be too low, he said. But he is not recommending that the practice continue unchecked. China should have cracked down sooner on feed companies he and others have said.
However, if the melamine open secret is as big as it appears from the outside, it is unlikely to be stopped any time soon, particularly because of the heirarchical government system in China. “It could take five or even 10 years” before some companies stop adding the chemical to food products, Jason Yan of the US Grains Council is quoted by AP.