Food Protection Connection: Inside the Melamine Issue
(reprinted from Dietary Manager, July/August 2007)
In March 2007, the FDA became aware that cats and dogs were becoming ill from contaminated pet food. As the situation unfolded, the FDA also learned that some tainted feed had been provided to farm animals in the US as well, expanding the question from one of pet safety to human food safety. In this column, we’ll take a look at some questions and answers about melamine.
What is melamine, and is it a food additive?
Melamine is an industrial chemical, and is not approved in the US as a food additive, or for any use in animal or human food. According to the FDA, “Melamine has a number of industrial uses, including as an industrial binding agent, flame retardant, and as part of a polymer in the manufacture of cooking utensils and plates. Melamine has additionally been used as a fertilizer in some parts of the world. It is not registered for use as a fertilizer in the US.”
Why was melamine added to pet food ingredients, and what were the effects?
A supplier in China added melamine to wheat gluten and rice derivatives in order to make the products test higher for protein content. Gluten is a part of grains that is high in protein, and it is used as thickener in the “gravy” of pet foods. Melamine was added only to make the ingredient appear to be higher in protein. Like protein, melamine contains the element nitrogen, which was what was tested. Thus, added melamine gave artificially high readings and increased the market value of the ingredients.
The FDA says that melamine “should not be in pet food at any level.” At the time the pet food recalls began, we had very little information about the effects of using melamine in food, because it had never been suggested or tested as a “food additive.” In affected cats and dogs, melamine caused lethargy, loss of appetite, vomiting, renal failure, and in some cases, death.
What was recalled?
More than 100 brands of pet food have been recalled since mid-March. The FDA maintains a list of recalled pet food products online at www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/petfoodrecall/.
What about the food for people?
In April and May, it was reported that meal containing some of the tainted ingredients entered feed used for farmed fish and also feed used for hogs and chickens raised on US farms. Some animals fed these products had already been processed as food, and officials believe that some melamine entered the human food supply.
Where did the melamine in animal feed come from?
As of May 30, 2007, Dr. David Acheson of the FDA announced that this melamine contamination event is entirely unrelated to the pet food problem, and that the melamine did not come from China. Two US companies, Tembec of Toledo, OH and Uniscope, Inc., of Johnstown, CO, began a voluntary recall of their products on May 30. Acheson explained that this is “another recall of a melamine product, but it is not a product that has wound up in pet foods.” Acheson was appointed to a newly created FDA position, Assistant Commissioner for Food Protection, May 1.
Tembec makes an ingredient used by Uniscope and also sells some product directly. Acheson said it has been confirmed that Tembec added melamine to its formulation of a binding agent used in animal feed intended for cattle, sheep, goats, or fish and shrimp. A binding agent is a chemical that makes the food pellet hold together. Uniscope notified the FDA of the concern in mid-May, according to Acheson.
As of now, the FDA indicated it is investigating many questions, such as to what extent this melamine has entered the food supply, and how long Tembec has been adding the melamine to agricultural feed ingredients. Authorities are also working with officials in other countries because the US has exported some of these products.
If the two melamine contamination issues are unrelated, why did they surface within weeks of each other?
The FDA notes that it initiated alerts within the industry following the pet food discovery, and Uniscope determined through testing that there was another problem. Uniscope brought this to the attention of the FDA.
So what is happening with potentially contaminated human food?
The USDA requested that certain animals be quarantined and placed on hold pending evaluation. Fish in two commercial aquaculture establishments were also placed on hold.
Will people become ill from the melamine that has entered the food supply?
One of the biggest challenges in dealing with the melamine incidents is that because melamine was never proposed as a food additive, it had not been evaluated in this light. When the pet food recalls began, scientists were pointing to a lack of information about the effects of melamine on pets. The FDA promptly initiated a safety assessment of melamine so that it could make informed decisions and judgments in the midst of contamination findings.
The FDA stated in May that “Neither the FDA or the USDA is aware of any human illness that has occurred from exposure to melamine or its byproducts.” Acheson of the FDA commented on May 30, 2007, “Federal scientists determined that, based on currently available data and information, the consumption of pork, chicken, domestic fish and eggs from animals inadvertently fed animal feed contaminated with melamine and its analogs is very unlikely to pose a human health risk.”
Are people ingesting toxins just like some pets did?
At least two factors make the human situation dramatically different from the pet food situation:
1: A pet consumes all or most of its diet as one product, pet food. In contrast, if there was melamine contamination in pork, for example, a human is not relying on that pork day-in and day-out for most of the diet.
2: The scope of contamination between affected pet food and agricultural feed is profoundly different. In pet food, as much as 10-20 percent of some wheat gluten was actually melamine, or 100,000 to 200,000 parts per million. To the best of our knowledge so far, the figures for US animal feed are about 50 parts per million—vastly lower. We also have to remember that humans do not eat the animal feed, but instead eat meat from animals who may have consumed it, which again dilutes the effect. So far, no evidence of human health problems is surfacing.
The melamine events have raised awareness among many people on many levels, both in the US and internationally, and it is clear that all the answers are not yet in. Additional food and drug contamination issues involving China have emerged, and the Chinese official in charge of China’s equivalent of the “FDA” has been sentenced to death. Yet failures of the food safety system cannot be attributed to only one country. We can expect more information as investigations unfold, as well as critiques of our food safety system as experts everywhere look for ways to problem- solve these complex and urgent concerns.
By Sue Grossbauer