May 01, 2007

Melamine Contamination: The Story Gets Worse

How bad is the melamine contamination? Bad. I mean, you didn't think this squirrelly government and industry strip-tease over food grade grain protein concentrates was going to stop at animal feed, did you?

The Food and Drug Administration is enforcing a new import alert that greatly expands its curtailment of some food ingredients imported from China, authorizing border inspectors to detain ingredients used in everything from noodles to breakfast bars. ...

The FDA has also released an upwardly mobile animal death toll of over 4,000 dogs and cats, not the fewer than 20 they were previously claiming. But our government would like to reassure us that the large quantities of contaminated product that made it into livestock feed and breakfast bars was only a very dilute portion (As Goldy pointed out when we spoke last night, proponents of homeopathy everywhere must be thinking, "Dilute? Now it's more powerful than ever!") of the overall diet and the health risk to humans is very low. Low, I tell you. Because our renal systems aren't nearly as dodgy as those of cats. Presuming those cats died of melamine poisoning, which is to say, presuming that melamine was the only contaminant and not just the one they found.

I mean, man, what sort of CEO's brew of off-label chemucopia has been getting added to our food these last few years? This aggression will not stand, man, oh no. It's a strike at the heart of the proxy trust systems that organizations like the Department of Weights and Measures mediate in order to facilitate commerce among perfect strangers in a large society. Or to put it another way, because the government is supposed to be my stand-in, I'm supposed to be able to buy with confidence a sealed drink from somebody I don't know in a town thousands of miles across the country and be able to believe that both the amount and the ingredients match the label. Has it ever occurred to you how entirely remarkable that is?

See, if each of us had to personally investigate every single supplier of goods and services in our lives, we'd do little else. We'd trade with fewer people and the economy overall would suffer and become disjointed. But you know, maybe it's worth it to know more about where our food is from. Maybe we shouldn't trust so many strangers with growing and processing the stuff we depend on for our very lives, especially when it appears that our incompetent government has abdicated its exercise of due diligence on our behalf.

So, grim. For a little levity, Goldy wonders what the government press release would say if it were revealed that our Soylent Green was people.

Posted by natasha at May 1, 2007 05:57 AM | Food | Technorati links |

You forgot the chickens. Won't somebody think about the chickens?

Posted by: Thom at May 1, 2007 08:03 AM

While this is a huge problem and displays the way the conservative anti-regulation movement has endangered us all, there are a few things to remember here:

1) Feline renal systems ARE dodgier than ours, kidney failure is a big problem with cats.

2) The plural of anecdote is not data. These are self-reports of pet deaths. I have no doubt the numbers are high, much higher than the 20 or so reported earlier, but self-reporting data can sometimes be off by 80% or more.

3) Regarding human consumption: the affected food often comprised the entire food intake of these animals, who are typically 10-50 times smaller than humans. Much like animal studies that would require humans to drink thousands of soft drinks a day for the same dose, the doses are just not comparable.

4) The wider embargo is as likely a political ploy to pressure the Chinese, who are refusing to cooperate with the FDA, as it is due to known or suspected contamination.

Fortunately, this exposes in a graphic fashion the antidemocratic views of people like Grover Norquist for the shallow, greed-centered sociopathic lies they are.

Adulterating the food with melamine to game the protein level testing is different only in scale from declaring ketchup a vegetable, or redefining chocolate to allow the elimination of cocoa butter.

A free and unfettered market will do this routinely; lest people forget, this is exactly why we have the FDA in the first place!!!

Posted by: BruceJ at May 1, 2007 09:33 AM

I disagree with you calling our US government incompetent in these matters. Rather the people who have been holding the purse strings and deciding on who is running these departments for the past decade don't give a crap. All of the department charged with overseeing the safty of our food supply are grossly understaffed and underbudgeted intentionally so they will not be able to pose much of a burden to busniness who as everyone knows is so good at self-regulation they don't need no stinking red-tape regulations messing with their god-given profit margin. Our food supply is very diverse and most of the health risks accumulate over a lifetime and are likely partially to blame in the huge jumps in cancer rates we are seeing across the board. So far we have been lucky that there has been no widespread sudden death among humans - but given the nature of the food supply that is just not very likely. Still we are no doubt exsposing ourselves to longterm health issues.

Posted by: puddlejumepr at May 1, 2007 01:15 PM

I disagree with you calling our US government incompetent in these matters.

The people holding the purse strings, the people castrating regulatory agencies and gutting a century of consumer protections are the government. Elected officials and their minions are just as much a part of the government as the rank & file employees that draft and enforce regulations.

We are, in a sense, lucky that it is incompetence at the top of the latter that has let regulation loosen and federal mandates fall apart. Elected officials are much easier to get rid of than non-political appointees and employees.

Posted by: Thomas at May 1, 2007 02:40 PM

In general, yes it is fair to make a distinction between the electeds and the agency staff who usually were hired because of expertise. Or at least they used to be, pre-Bush. But yes, also, the people who refuse to make food safety funding a priority or to give agency recalls real teeth, have made these agencies incompetent in their execution of their duties, regardless of any desire on the part of their staff to do their jobs.

BruceJ - "1) Feline renal systems ARE dodgier than ours, kidney failure is a big problem with cats.

2) The plural of anecdote is not data. These are self-reports of pet deaths. I have no doubt the numbers are high, much higher than the 20 or so reported earlier, but self-reporting data can sometimes be off by 80% or more. ..."

1) Yes, this much is known and I didn't dispute that. But while the renal system of a cat is, in general, more dodgy than that of your typical human, not even all the cats died. Conversely, there are humans with extremely dodgy and weak renal systems due to being very old or sick. I don't know what melamine does to the kidneys of a gestating fetus. I don't want anyone to have to find out.

This is what alarms me: There's something in our food supply that a) wasn't supposed to be there, b) wasn't detected until it started killing animals in droves, and to repeat, c) it's been killing animals. In droves. Nine out of 20 Menu Foods test subjects died. Nine. That's nearly 50%. I don't want to be at risk of eating something that killed half the test animals within two days, not even a little bit of it.

2) The over 4,000 number is from the government press release. If there's some particular reason you can think of why they'd want to inflate the number of confirmed deaths related to this incident, I'm all ears.

Posted by: natasha at May 1, 2007 09:24 PM

Hey, Natasha, you made Slate's Today's Blogs on Tuesday. Good to see a familiar face showing up there. :-)

I have found this whole thing appalling, and am no longer buying any sort of imported Chinese processed food... My gf and I have been fond of some of the exotic snacky things from Ranch 99, and glass noodles, which are made from high-protein mung bean flour... It turns out that in '04 and '06, there were scandals with glass noodles having the same kind of adulteration (using a non-nutritious, cheap substitute, and then toxic chemicals to cover up the substitution) as happened with the animal feed. (My most recent blog entry links to news stories on this.) Which leaves me asking: Why wasn't that a big story here?! Why isn't Lou Dobbs, at least, since he's already paranoid about free trade and immigration, talking about it? This stuff is on the shelves, in the international section of all my local grocery stores, as well as at ethnic markets...

Posted by: RM 'Auros' Harman at May 3, 2007 11:15 AM