Adventures in Ethics and Science

Maybe you heard about the melamine contamination issue when tainted pet food started killing pets. But, if you don’t have a pet, maybe you didn’t worry so much.

Or maybe you noticed when tainted infant formula started sending infants to the hospital. Stuff that harms babies (even way far away in China) is really sad. But if you’re not currently caring for a baby that ingests infant formula, eventually your attention wandered.

Then the news came that melamine levels were testing high in treats like White Rabbit candies and Panda’s March cookies — treats that may have been on your shelves (as they were on ours). Sure, it’s annoying to toss out that bag of candy, but it’s a relief that someone is testing all of these products to keep us safe, right? (Because the products meant for human ingestion are all being tested, aren’t they?)

Well, I see today via Discoblog, that “adult edibles” — strawberry-flavored body pens and chocolate-flavored “willy spreads” — in the UK have tested with melamine levels “up to 100 times over the legal limit, set at 2.5mg/kg”.

Not even the sex toys are safe.

Now, it seems pretty unlikely to me that edible sex toys are tested for protein content (or that a low protein content would result in an edible panty recall). What that suggests is that the problem is closer to the producers’ end of the chain — that the struggling milk producers in villages in China are watering the milk to make it go farther, but adding melamine (scraps left over from manufacture) so the protein profile looks like unwatered milk.

The aim of the adulteration isn’t to poison anyone, but to make money. However, the current inspection set-up isn’t identifying the adulteration until the milk has been transformed into many other products (and has traveled great geographical distances).

It’s not just a problem with inspections and tests in China. And, given that manufacturers of food for human and animal consumption (and of sex toys) are getting their raw materials from a global marketplace, the consumer can’t be sure where those raw materials originated or what might have happened to them between the cow’s udder and the candy plant.

“Made in U.S.A.” isn’t enough information to keep us safe.

I suppose if there’s a silver lining to the melamine adulteration saga, it’s the chance that we’ll recognize that the globalization of trade in raw materials and finished products mean that these problems are not isolated. They don’t just affect other people. If you’re buying any processed food (or even sex toys) rather than making everything on your own from the bounty of your garden, you may get your surprise dose of adulterants, too!

For more on melamine and the food supply, see:

Effect Measure (here, here, and here)
Terra Sigillata (here and here)
Molecule of the Day (here and here)
Angry Toxicologist (here)


  1. #1 Becca
    October 22, 2008

    Edible underware are made with milk?!

  2. #2 speedwell
    October 22, 2008

    Becca, they probably use casein, the protein from milk. Casein is glue-like, rubbery and tough. Whenever you have a product made with concentrated milk proteins, and the milk proteins have been adulterated… well, you get the picture.

  3. #3 laura b
    October 22, 2008

    Well, a lot of the cheap and inedible sex toys from China have been causing problems for ages. The (usually jelly) plastics they’re made of are full of phthlates, and many stores won’t carry them. Now you have to use protection with the inedibles and not eat the edibles. Yaay for unregulated sex toys!

  4. #4 S. Rivlin
    October 23, 2008

    But look at the bright side of things; when McCain and Palin will be in the White House, the era of tight regulation will be ushered in!!!

  5. #5 edward2020
    October 24, 2008

    I’ve read – not sure where – that the test that checks protein levels is more complicated than just mixing in some melamine into fresh milk. The article I read this in indicated that because it is a rather technical process that they assumed that melamine entered the chain above the actual milk producers. Does anyone know anything about this? I certainly don’t.

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