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Melamine, poisons and the misappliance of science

The takeaways from rogue Chinese food additives

By George Smith, Dick Destiny, 6 Oct 2008

As melamine alerts reverberate around the world in the wake of China's dairy export industry, it affords us an opportunity to look at bad chemistry while considering the scale of the global food market. And how vulnerable consumers are when garden-variety greed, not terrorism, is the driver in mass poisonings.

In the first quarter of last year, the Chinese company, Xuzhou Anying, was advertising dust of melamine as something it called "ESB protein powder" on the global market trading website, Alibaba. "The latest product, ESB protein powder, which is researched and developed by Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Co., Ltd... Contains protein 160 - 300 percent, which solves the problem for shortage of protein resource," it boasted.

Awkwardly worded and a bit fishy, it nevertheless apparently hooked North American pet food makers and animal feed distributors - specifically ChemNutra, Menu Foods and Wilbur-Ellis - who lost control of their supply chain and weren't able to resist claims - which should surely have raised eyebrows - for an apparently magical protein powder. In this way, melamine found its way into a great deal of pet food as a protein extender. Xuzhou's money gig ended when someone went too far and upped the dose enough to cause precipitation in the kidneys, killing and sickening a large but not easy to track number of pets.

News stories from a year ago initially noted that melamine was not originally thought to be that toxic. But, at the time, few knew that it had a use as a processed food adulterant chosen specifically because it tested as protein. Paradoxically, it's also used in chemical combination with urea to make plastics, one example being toilet seats made in China, and bought at the local hardware store by this writer.

China makes a lot of melamine and the country also manufactures and exports tens of billions of dollars worth of powders and concentrates for use in processed food. Readers can see where this is going. Completely stamping out criminal rings making and diverting melamine for use in processed food is going to be a long process, if it can be done at all.

Nitrogen, yum...

Ironically, urea used to be used as a food adulterant, too. In the US, as late as 1985 the compound had been used to step on wheat to boost nitrogen determinations and profit for the seller.

Now, just in case one gets the idea this is bagging on China too much, consider it takes two parties to make this crime work. The people who make and sell the melamine. And the western firms in the food industry working the territory for the best possible deals, in the process giving up tight supervision and quality control of their suppliers.

An additional lesson, as if any were actually needed, was furnished by Baxter International, a US company which had worked through another US partner, Scientific Protein Laboratories, in outsourcing heparin production to China. Heparin is used in kidney dialysis patients and certain operations. Tainted with an altered form of chondroitin sulfate, the contaminant, cheaply produced from pig cartilage, was probably chosen because it cost about one twentieth of actual heparin isolation. It also had great similarity to the anti-clotting agent in cursory testing. In the US, Baxter's subpotent contaminated heparin is thought to have caused at least nineteen deaths.

From these incidents, one can tell there's a bit of actual science being maliciously applied in the course of finding cheap things with a certain utility in stepping on food additives and drugs for increased profit.

With the case of melamine, there is probably a range of doses of it which, cynically, are sub-optimal for the generation of kidney stones and sand in the urine in mammals. When someone becomes too greedy or careless and the amount is pooched too high in tons of baby milk powder, there's a disaster which exposes the operation, and the arrests start.

Oops, there goes the supply chain...

In this arrangement for profit, bad elements in China (as well as western firms) have cooperatively achieved subversion of what are supposed to be trusted sources. Islamic terrorists can only dream about such inside access to critical supply chains. The desire for profit is a much better motivator than the desire to create simple terror.

So as melamine criss crosses the globe in Ritz crackers for Korea, cookies for Holland, in chocolate for Cadburys, in White Rabbit Creamy Candies for the Asian markets in California, and in the products of internationally manufacturing American food giants like Kraft, Heinz and Nabisco, what's that stabbing pain in your lower back?

Oh, it's just a twinge of the old lumbago, you think.

Bootnote: "Country-of-origin labeling finally became a reality on Tuesday for meats, produce and some nuts sold in American supermarkets," reported the New York Times this week. But many processed foods are exempt. Guess what kinds of foods melamine gets into. Rhetorical question, obviously. ®

George Smith is a senior fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, a defense affairs think tank and public information group. At Dick Destiny, he blogs his way through chemical, biological, and nuclear terror hysteria, often by way of the contents of neighbourhood hardware stores.

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