Monday, November 03, 2008

Melamine?

There was a simpler time when, if you heard the word melamine, you thought about a plastic kitchen counter top. Not any more!. Now you think about additives in your food.

The stuff has been around for more than a century but it was only when research into plastics had this complex nitrogen-based molecule mixed with cyanide to produce a heat-formed plastic that the word came into general use. And it came into use to describe a form of thermo-plastic.

But the nitrogen base of the original fabrication was the thing that interested food producers. Nitrogen is a base for fertilizers and so it was only natural that somebody decided to dump some melamine on the garden. It didn't work as well as other forms of fertilizer, so there was nothing to be gained from that. But other wizards who were experimenting with high-protein animal feed were looking for something to replace urea. (No I'm not taking the piss, they lace animal feed with chemical urea to bulk them up.) Melamine looked like a source of cheap, easily-absorbed nitogen-based protein. Problem was, it wasn't all that easily-absorbed and, when used in high quantities, had some 'side-effects'. But somebody noticed that when it was added, it boosted the tested content levels for protein in the feed, even if the animal couldn't process it.

On large animals the effects were not as marked, although there were some reproductive affects noted. In dogs and cats the stuff was toxic, attacking the kidneys and leading to renal failure. It was in pet food that the first food-chain problems came to light with a rash of sick animals in pet-fancying America. The cause was traced back to pet foods and to protein additives imported from China, that were used in the manufacture.

While the Chinese were investigating, it came to light there, that infant formula was making some very sick babies. When that was checked what showed up? You've got it - melamine!

How come? Well, that point about melamine boosting tested protein levels wasn't wasted on the smart. Particularly the smart who thought that watering milk down and adding some melamine was a great way to increase the profit margin. Turns out there was no 'secret' here, virtually every milk producer in China was doing it. And the milk products - lactose, milk powder, whey, et alia were being exported everywhere and dumped into everything from soup - to nuts. And the melamine, too.

The Cadbury chocolate company pulled all its Hong-Kong produced products because they were made with contaminated milk. Whole and powdered milk was destroyed in bulk when contamination was discovered. The latest to go in China is 'eggs' - from contaminated chickens. Seems the melamine in their chickenfeed goes right into the chickens' eggs. Remember that reproductive thing?

Where are we in North America? Well, we're busy with the stock market plunge and electing presidents and we're too busy to think about food right now. But somebody's on it. In Canada they took some obscure chinese-made cookies of a shelf somewhere out west.

Maybe they are on top of it, but I doubt it. For a couple of reasons. First the FDA - that American food watchdog - says a little bit of melamine ain't gonna kill ya, so if it makes somebody's packaging advertisement true, what the heck, eat up. For another reason, the number of 'reputable' western firms involved. New Zealand's biggest food conglomerate is involved 'big time', being part owner of a couple of the worst 'offenders' in China. Buying food additives from the Fonterra Corp. doesn't sound half as scary as from the Huangzhou Industrial Chemical Plant #46.

For a third, there's always the need to minimize the bottom line, while avoiding regulation as much as possible. When it comes to corporations, as has been well demonstrated, while the head honchos may be the nicest people you're ever going to meet, when they get together over the balance sheets and some flunky 'on the way up' has a million-dollar idea to save on a few bucks on a cost item, those group decisions can always be regretted. But the cheque for all that 'responsibility' is a bigger attraction. I don't think we're too interested in scratching how deep the Chinese food additives business goes in North America. That might ruin an election and make a stock market crash worse!

A lot of additives are put into our food now, additives that didn't even exist in some cases 30 years ago. They're added for a number of reasons - to prevent oxidation, maintain moisture level, prevent decay, etc, etc, etc. But maybe it's time to start thinking about what we could be doing to ourselves, and our kids. Maybe it's time to go back - not a long way - to a saner time about what we do to our food. If somebody was grinding up your plastic counter top to make sandwiches .......

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