In 2008, 6 infants and 300,000 people were affected respectively in China because of adulterated milk powder. According to a study conducted by Peking University also found out that the ultrasound images of the victims indicated a prolonged effect due to melamine exposure. It is a serious concern that melamine ingestion results into long-term adverse health consequences. During the test, it was revealed that the dairy product contained 500 times more melamine than the standard allowed level. In addition, 64 tonnes of raw materials belonging to dairy firms were seized in a single province in 2008 in China. Furthermore, according to China AQSIS (Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine) tests the use of melamine was discovered in the products of 22 dairy companies across China. In accordance to a WHO report it cannot be assured where in the production chain was the melamine substituted for boosting apparent protein content but there is a possibility that low level of melamine might have existed in China for a long time in form of a residue from a common pesticide called cyromazine. The residue is eventually absorbed by plants in the form of melamine and is then transferred to food and animals which contaminates the food, feed and water. This has raised a question about the sincerity of the food security watchdogs and government authorities in disregarding the substantial use of hazardous ingredients in Chinese food industry. As a result, 18 countries have imposed a ban on the import of Chinese dairy product. Furthermore, the residents also boycotted the usage of melamine adulterated milk which eventuated the bankruptcy of multiple companies like Sanlu. Moreover, a total of 274 creditors in Sanlu Group have been sanctioned by the law and they encountered 1.1 billion-yuan ($161 million) debt (source).

The food incident in China not only tarnished the stature of China’s food exports, but even destroyed the booming domestic industry in PRC. Meanwhile, it stipulated the entrance of internationals products and lead to a series of mergers and acquisition throughout Chinese dairy industry. In the hindsight, Chinese food safety crisis sprung robust and state centric regulatory and legal framework for monitoring the food industry. For instance, China amended new food safety laws and promulgated China Food Safety and Drug Administration under direct supervision of ministry. However, the transition is still under scrutiny and have not led to any drastic improvements.  

An Insight into Melamine

Melamine is a toxic industrial compound basically used for creating plastics, fertilisers and concrete. Due to its 66 % nitrogen concentration melamine is primarily added in dairy product to indicate a higher concentration of protein. The traditional methods such as Kjeldahi and Dumas to analyse protein content and levels is not able to distinguish between the nitrogen from melamine and naturally occurring nitrogen crystals in amino acids which helps the manufacturers to falsify these quality tests. Melamine is especially found to be used as fillers substance in baby food formula to show up product to appear more nutritious. Furthermore, it is also used as non-protein nitrogen to falsify the nutritional content in human food and animal feed. According to the World Health Organization excessive use of melamine is responsible for causing kidney stones and renal failure after reacting with the cyanuric acid inside living beings. Therefore, the melamine adulteration in food and feed product is prohibited and not approved by national and international authorities across the globe (source). However, the business incumbents often exploit the legal loopholes in developing and underdeveloped countries that allowed the culprits to complicit manipulation.

In the US, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which has the right to conduct pre-market safety assessments of food additives requires all manufacturers to evince necessarily the safety of all food additives prior to dispatching. A food additive is defined as any substance that results directly or indirectly resulting from or due to any outcome or reasonably anticipated food unless the material is generally considered to be safe (GRAS) or recognized prior to use. The general safety requirements for indirect food additives and food contact substances have been incorporated into the Federal Regulations (CFR). Food contact substances (FCS) is defined as any ingredient used in the manufacture of packaging, packaging, transport or holding of food, if not in the food with any technical effect. This method defines the general safety standard for the assessment of food additives as “evidence that the intended use of the additive does not cause reasonable damage”. When this standard is specified, the US Congress decides that it is absolutely necessary to take into account that any substance administered at a high enough dose may cause some toxicity and cannot prove the safety of any substance. Looking back, China Sanlu Group committed a serious low-level error in this point. In terms of the assessment of the low-molecular-weight oligomers is important because they can be one of the primary migrants to food from a polymeric food-contact substance. (source)

What can be done?

A research showed that participants often doubt about the government’s approval of food additives due to a lack of adequate information, inefficiency of food control mechanism and safety protocols. Therefore, it must establish a functional system that ensures the adherence of statutory and regulatory directives. For instance, a pre-market safety assessment of food concentration and additives must be employed which makes it mandatory for the manufacturers to demonstrate the safety of food additives before marketing. Furthermore, it must pay close attention to risk management decisions, feasibility of public opinion, safety propaganda and randomization responsible for causing food panic crisis. Meanwhile, the public is also entitled to pay proper attention to the food ingredients and additives and must report every actionable activity to authorities. Furthermore, there is a need to instigate coping strategies regarding food safety and implementation of basic food safety education for general public(source).