Melamine: In Plastics and In Our Food? - The Blytheco Blog

Melamine: In Plastics and In Our Food?


Why is melamine – a substance used to make plastics – turning up in our food supply?

As reported by the LA Times recently, China is the world’s largest dairy importer, and the United States has increased its exports of milk to China sevenfold since 2009. The reasons for China’s increased demand for dairy, especially milk powder are many, but among them is the perception amongst Chinese consumers that their milk is not safe to drink.

This stems from the 2008 adulteration of infant formula with melamine, which resulted in six deaths and more than 50,000 reports of illnesses. This was the second instance of adulteration of foods with melamine in China, the previous one of contaminated pet food in 2007.

So why is melamine, which is regularly used to produce a resin, which in turn is used to make plastic, ending up in foods with such tragic consequences? Melamine has a very large Nitrogen content, the same Nitrogen that is found in food products. Melamine will falsely raise the protein content of foods tested by the Kjeldahl method, a standard analytical method used to determine protein content. This has allowed unethical producers to sell “more protein” at less cost.

After the 2007 and 2008 incidents the Food and Drug Administration released its Interim Safety and Risk Assessment of Melamine and its Analogues in Food for Humans. For more detailed information on the report, click here. The FDA also developed analytical methods to determine presence of melamine in infant formula and animal tissue, such as pork and fish, which can be found here.

The importance of product traceability is highlighted by this incident. At the time the FDA issued the following recommendations in a “Dear Colleague” Letter to the U.S. Food Manufacturing Industry:

  • Know the precise origin of each milk-derived ingredient. For example, milk-derived ingredients that are sourced from countries other than China could actually originate from China.
  • Determine that milk-derived ingredients originating from China are free of melamine and its analogues prior to usage.

These recommendations are still valid today and it would be wise for manufacturers to implement monitoring systems to detect possible contaminants in their supply chain.

Dr. Claudia Fajardo-Lira is a Professor in Food Science within the Nutrition, Dietetics and Food Science option and is Executive Director of the Marilyn Magaram Center for Food Science, Nutrition and Dietetics at California State University, Northridge. She is a member of the Food Science Communicators Committee for the Institute of Food Technologists and served on the Executive Committee for the Southern California Section of the Institute.

In the “Traceability and Beyond” blog series, Dr. Fajardo-Lira will bring us news about the latest in Food Safety issues and trends, with a focus on improving quality and appropriate standards in industry.

Learn more about the role technology plays in food safety, compliance, and quality in today’s food processing business – join a panel of experts for Blytheco’s upcoming webinars:

  • The Role of Technology in Food Safety and Recalls – July 16, 1pm ET. Register here.
  • The Role of Technology in Food Processing Compliance and Traceability – September 25, 2pm ET. Register here.
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