Traces of the industrial chemical melamine have been detected in samples of top-selling U.S. infant formula, tearing through the Chinese syndrome, as it were. Most melamine poisoning have been traced to China in recent times, raising a worldwide scare. But even the US-manufactured products too are vulnerable, it seems.
he authorities are putting on a brave face though. The FDA had said last month it was unable to identify any melamine exposure level as safe for infants, but a top official is now saying it would be a "dangerous overreaction" for parents to stop feeding infant formula to babies who depend on it.
"The levels that we are detecting are extremely low," said Dr. Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
"They should not be changing the diet. If they've been feeding a particular product, they should continue to feed that product. That's in the best interest of the baby."
In 2007, U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials speculated melamine was added by Chinese manufacturers to the wheat gluten and rice protein used for pet food because it falsely appeared to raise the protein content of the ingredients.
So also this time round too it is said melamine was intentionally dumped into watered-down milk by to trick food quality tests into showing higher protein levels than actually existed. Byproducts of the milk ended up in infant formula, coffee creamers, even biscuits.
Whatever the case, the tainted milk crisis has shown that consuming products containing melamine can cause kidney stones and renal failure in infants. In April 2007, University of Guelph researcher Perry Martos said a reaction between melamine and cyanuric acid resulted in pets developing crystals in their kidneys.
Previously undisclosed tests, obtained by the Associated Press under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, show that the FDA has detected melamine in local samples.
The three firms involved — Abbott Laboratories, Nestle and Mead Johnson — manufacture more than 90 per cent of all infant formula produced in the United States.
According to FDA data for tests of 77 infant formula samples, a trace concentration of melamine was detected in one product — Mead Johnson's Infant Formula Powder, Enfamil LIPIL with Iron. An FDA spreadsheet shows two tests were conducted on the Enfamil, with readings of 0.137 and 0.14 parts per million.
Three tests of Nestle's Good Start Supreme Infant Formula with Iron detected an average of 0.247 parts per million of cyanuric acid, a melamine byproduct.
The FDA had said last month that the toxicity of cyanuric acid is under study, but that meanwhile it is "prudent" to assume that its potency is equal to that of melamine.
But now it is asserted that that the Chinese case was very different. The melamine found in Chinese infant formula was in far larger concentrations, leading to the death of three babies and leaving at least 50,000 others ill.
While the concentrations of melamine in the Chinese products were as high as 2,500 parts per million, what was detected in the FDA samples was 10,000 times smaller — the equivalent of a drop in a 242-litre trash bin, it is said.
The FDA and other experts said the melamine contamination in U.S.-made formula had occurred during the manufacturing process, rather than intentionally.
The U.S. government quietly began testing domestically produced infant formula in September, soon after problems with melamine-spiked formula surfaced in China.
Sundlof said there have been no reports of human illness in the United States from melamine, which can bind with other chemicals in urine, potentially causing damaging stones in the kidney or bladder and, in extreme cases, kidney failure.
Melamine is used in some U.S. plastic food packaging and can rub off onto what we eat; it's also contained in a cleaning solution used on some food processing equipment and can leach into the products being prepared.
Sundlof told the AP the positive test results "so far are in the trace range, and from a public health or infant health perspective, we consider those to be perfectly fine."
Interestingly, while the FDA said tests of 18 samples of formula made by Abbott Laboratories, including its Similac brand, did not detect melamine, spokesman Colin McBean said some company tests did find the chemical. He did not identify the specific product or the number of positive tests.
However, McBean hastened to add that the detections were at levels far below the health limits set by all countries in the world, including Taiwan, where the limit is 0.05 parts per million.
"We're talking about trace amounts right here, and you know there's a lot of scientific bodies out there that say low levels of melamine are always present in certain types of foods," said McBean.