Let's Ask Marion: Shouldn't The FDA Keep Melamine Out Of Our Domestic Food Chain?

(With a click of her mouse, EatingLiberally’s kat corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Pet Food Politics, What to Eat and Food Politics:)

Kat: The FDA announced last week that it was detaining a wide variety of milk-based Chinese products--everything from candy and baked goods to, once again, pet food--in order to verify that these foods aren't contaminated by melamine. But as an op-ed in Monday's New York Times revealed, melamine turns up in our own domestic food supply, too, and the FDA appears to be pretty blasé about it:

Fertilizer companies commonly add melamine to their products because it helps control the rate at which nitrogen seeps into soil, thereby allowing the farmer to get more nutrient bang for the fertilizer buck. But the government doesn't regulate how much melamine is applied to the soil. This melamine accumulates as salt crystals in the ground, tainting the soil...

...Regulations might be lax when it comes to animal feed and fertilizer in China, but take a closer look at similar regulations in the United States and it becomes clear that they're vague enough to allow industries to "recycle" much of their waste into fertilizer and other products that form the basis of our domestic food supply.

If melamine-tainted milk from China poses a potential hazard, why is the use of melamine in American agriculture acceptable?

Dr. Nestle: It is most emphatically not acceptable. The FDA says this quite clearly on its website:

...Melamine also has been used as a fertilizer in some parts of the world. It is not registered for use as a fertilizer in the United States.

This means that if farmers are using it as fertilizer, they are doing so illegally. And they are doing it stupidly. Melamine may be rich in nitrogen (67%), but bacteria in soil break it down very slowly so the nitrogen isn’t very available. It would just sit there for a long time. As I discovered during the research for my book Pet Food Politics, the main use of the nitrogen in melamine is to fool tests for protein into thinking that pet food, animal feed, and, for that matter, infant formula, has protein when it doesn’t. So any time you find melamine in pet food, animal food, human food, or fertilizer, it is there because some unscrupulous person has committed fraud. It is not supposed to be there at all, ever.

The FDA’s standard of 2.5 ppm as a “safe” level for melamine in food is a tacit admission that the situation is out of control. I agree that 2.5 ppm is unlikely to harm anyone, even babies. As I discussed in my book, the levels that caused crystals to form in the kidneys of sheep in the 1960s and cats and dogs last year were 100 times higher. But the kidney crystals are formed from melamine and its breakdown product, cyanuric acid. When both are present, crystals form at 32 ppm; the lowest level at which crystals form has not been defined.

Melamine should not be in American—or Chinese--food, feed, or fertilizer at any level whatsoever. If it is in our agricultural system, it’s time to put a stop to it before any more harm gets done.

As for human food: Last week, the FDA issued an import alert on a long list of Chinese foods ranging from milk to candy to pet food because of suspected contamination with melamine. This week, the FDA opened an office in Beijing. While waiting for all this to do some good, it’s probably a good idea to be careful about what you buy from China. Or, as the concerned designer Sokie Lee would say, don’t buy anything at all until China cleans up its food safety act. (see above illustration).

More Country of Origin

More Country of Origin Labeling would be a good start. Although it will likely die in this Congress, Hillary Clinton introduced legislation that would expand country of origin labeling to dairy products. Who would voluntarily buy a Chinese dairy product? I wouldn't buy a Chinese soy product either as melamine falsely boosts protein levels in soy products too.

Labeling is the great leveler. If consumers knew what they were buying and where/how it was grown/manufactured, they may not want it. Labeling is the major fear of food producers. If GE food was labeled, the market for it would change dramatically.

Rick Tannenbaum