Tainted Chinese candy in California

Yesterday we noted the intricate interconnections between the physical, biological and social environments that conspired to affect the risk that a person might become infected with West Nile Virus. The same Adjustable Rate Mortgages that are part of that public health problem are at work in the spectacular collapse of the global financial system. Effects span huge scale differences, from local to global. Tight interconnections with unpredictable effects are also at work in our food supply, which now has long chains of production and supply that often combine local and global scales in one food product. The financial pressures on a small dairy farmer in a remote province of China that lead him to water his milk and then meet protein standards by adding scrap melamine plastic are now working their way through the food chain. The practice is apparently widespread among small dairy farms in China, farms that supply raw milk to large dairy product firms there. Over 50,000 Chinese children are sick with kidney disease, four of them (at a minimum), fatally. The milk solids prepared from the adulterated milk meanwhile is finding its way into into international distribution channels, with the EU and numerous other countries, especially in Asia, banning the import of products thought to contain Chinese dairy ingredients. As of yesterday, the FDA was still reassuring the public that such products were banned in the US. Now they have been found in California:

A Burlingame food distribution company that specializes in Asian imports is continuing a voluntary recall of Chinese candies after state officials found them to be contaminated.

Queensway Foods Company Inc., a U.S. distributor of White Rabbit Candy, has responded to consumer warnings from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the California Department of Health and the San Mateo Public Health Department by recalling every flavor of the Chinese-produced candy after testing found it to contain dangerous levels of the toxin melamine, Suanne Buggy of the state health department confirmed Monday.
The California Department of Public Health conducted tests confirming a level of melamine in the candy, which, according to Buggy, was "unacceptably high." (KTVU News)

It's another blow to the prestige and reputation of the brand, Made in China:

Chinese President Hu Jintao publicly lectured a dairy executive on the importance of food safety Tuesday, leading a media campaign to show the government's resolve in a scandal over tainted milk powder.


On the main evening television news broadcast, Hu was shown visiting a dairy farm in the eastern province of Anhui.

"Food safety is a matter of the health of the people," Hu told the head of the local dairy company that owned the farm, shaking his finger.


Wang Jianguo, spokesman for the municipal government of Shijiazhuang, capital of Hebei province, issued an apology for the city's handling of the case.

"As the local government, we have an irrevocable responsibility for this matter. We feel deep regret and sorrow about it. We express our deep apologies toward the infants who have fallen ill, as well as their parents," Wang told state TV.

Wang acknowledged that the local government had received a report from Sanlu as early as August 2 about the problem but only reported it to the provincial government on September 9.

Its failure to report the case earlier was the result of a lack of "political sensitivity," Wang said. (Reuters via Scientific American News)

The mention of "political sensitivity" is curious. We earlier suggested that it was a surfeit of "political sensitivity" that might have been responsible for the delay in reporting, specifically the reluctance to cast a bad light on China while the Summer Olympics was underway in Beijing. This is a claim that local authorities didn't understand the political implications of failure to notify the provincial government. This seems highly doubtful and suggests a further reticence to implicate those higher on the food chain, perhaps to prevent the lethal consequences of being found guilty of failure sometimes encountered in the Chinese justice system. It's not just a shake of the finger but a firing squad.

Whatever the explanation, another example of "the tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive." Except this isn't the first time for China.

It's just another time.

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I think it's only fair to observe that the Chinese government is headed in the right direction. Only a few years ago Wang making such a public statement would have been the immediate end of his career.

Rev Matt: I agree. But it doesn't hurt to keep the pressure on.

Reading the first report begs the question:

Is there really an acceptable level of melamine in our food?

Karen: Since it's an adulterant, from the legal point of view the answer would be no. But from the toxicology point of view, it is conceivable there are de minimis doses that don't matter.

@Revere: Agreed. The fact that they are responding in a positive way to the various pressures internal and external is encouraging and all the more reason to redouble efforts for transparency and human rights.

I have no doubt this (or similar) contamination will soon be detected in other food products. It's already been found in "food grade" gluten from China, sold in U.S. Any proteinaceous compound found in our processed food is at risk of carrying such contamination, because so many of those products come from China.

And, what about the vitamins that are from China (i.e., nearly entire world market)? Do China-sourced calcium supplements contain lead (a common contaminant of calcium supplements some years back)? Is there any reliable testing of these products?
We're buying tons (literally) of amino acids from China, including tryptophan (which had its own contamination issue due to manufacturing shortcut while still made in U.S.) and these go into supplements and food products.

As long as no one is assaying Chinese foodstuffs, anyone who eats them is taking a gamble. It's also hard to believe that anyone thinks that organic food from China is true to its labeling, with all the financial incentive they have to lie about that too.

What we need (and what the food industry is vociferously fighting) is Country of Origin labeling. As the person spending the money and eating the food, I have a right to know where my food is coming from, so that I can choose to entirely avoid Chinese food products, or so I can eat locally, or for whatever other reason I may have regardless of how reasonable it might seem to someone else. It's MY money and it's MY body.

Until we have accurate Country of Origin labeling, we'll be reading endless versions of this same story, and countless people will be forced to eat toxic garbage they might otherwise have avoided. We really need another Upton Sinclair!

Country of origin is often circumvented, changed. For example, by setting up a company in another country, etc. Also, the legislation (I don t know much about it) is very complex. In some cases, only 50% of ingredients from the announced country of origin are required. Usually it is somewhat higher. Second, some rules include the input of labor - if so much % of the work (or, added value) is done in x country, combined with some % of the materials, it can be labelled as coming from that country...or not. For ex. a packet of frozen chicken nuggets will contain ingredients from many different countries - even the processing may be split up by thousands of kms.

> de minimis doses

Nuh uh. I think.

Revere, please, give me a sanity check.

I think: interactions, unknown unknowns, 'insoluble crystals'
That would sum to "no safe level" over the long term -- right?

I've seen mention of a "background level" of melamine in the Chinese food system, confusing attempts to measure levels.

Does anyone know:

-- how long melamine has been used as an adulterant?
(In every food that's tested for protein content, perhaps?)
-- In how many products?
-- Does it bioaccumulate and move up a food chain?

AND is swallowing swimming pool water (tested for adequate chlorination by addition of cyanuric acid, apparently) a cofactor risk?

What else could interact with melamine to crystallize?

Looking back:


"The toxic compound(s) in this recent outbreak have been proposed to be melamine and cyanuric acid, which were present in wheat gluten, rice protein, and corn gluten imported from China and used as a pet food ingredient.4,11 It is presumed that melamine was intentionally added by suppliers in China to falsely elevate the measured protein content and, hence, the monetary value of these products.3,4,13 Although melamine alone does not cause renal failure in toxicology studies in dogs and rodents,10,12 melamine and cyanuric acid in combination form insoluble crystals that obstruct and damage renal tubules and are presumed to cause renal failure.11 ..."

By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 03 Oct 2008 #permalink


"... The FDA said that in food products other than infant formula, it concluded that levels of melamine and melamine-related compounds below 2.5 parts per million do not raise health concerns.

The FDA said it could not set a level in infant formula, meaning that any amount of melamine in formula would be considered harmful....

... Stephen Sundlof, the head of FDA's food-safety division, said the melamine standard is a health standard and not necessarily a testing standard. He said melamine could potentially show up in food by coming into contact with other substances, such as machinery used to process food, plastic plates and Formica counters that contain melamine.

"Is there a background level normally present in food and can we distinguish it from melamine that's intentionally added," he said.

By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 03 Oct 2008 #permalink

One historical nitpick, tryptophan contamination was as far as I know traced to a contaminated bacterial production line from one Japanese manufacturer --
Mentioned here:
Their cite for the statement is:
Teman AJ, Hainline B: Eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome. Phys Sportsmed 1991;19(2):81-86

By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 03 Oct 2008 #permalink

PS, don't rely on the recall.
Especially with Hallowe'en coming up, you don't want to be giving this stuff to kids. It's still on the store shelves.
Listen to the owner (who wouldn't give his name) making excuses for not removing it from his store in this interview:

By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 03 Oct 2008 #permalink

Melamine, as toxic as it is to kidneys, does not have the chemical properties that make it likely to bioaccumulate. Most such compounds are lipophilic, and the only exception to that I'm aware of is PFOS, which is associated with proteins but is not a protein or an amine itself.

By Tlazolteotl (not verified) on 05 Oct 2008 #permalink