Food contamination investigation expands: how trustworthy is the fox guarding the henhouse?

UPDATE: Now the FDA is investigating whether melamine may have gotten into … wait for it … baby food.

It started out as a pet food contamination crisis – dozens of dog and cat food brands associated with Menu Foods were recalled because pets were dying. An investigation was launched, and as these things so often go, it just keeps getting bigger and bigger and scarier and scarier. The latest bit – has melamine entered the human food chain? (Hint – that was a rhetorical question.) What the hell is going on, and by the way, can we trust our regulators?

This just in:

Thousands of Hogs May Have Eaten Contaminated Feed
– Pet Food Scraps Containing Melamine Fed to Hogs in Six StatesBy Lisa Wade McCormick
April 25, 2007

Thousands of hogs in the United States — in at least six states — may have eaten livestock feed contaminated with the chemical melamine, the Food and Drug Administration said.

And health officials are now investigating the possibility that humans may have consumed food containing the chemical that triggered a nationwide recall of pet food.

California officials confirmed hogs at a farm in that state ate the contaminated food — described as salvaged pet food or pet food scraps. Officials were also trying to determine if hogs in five other states — New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Utah, and Ohio — ate the tainted food.

The FDA has confirmed the urine of some hogs in California, North Carolina and South Carolina tested positive for melamine.

When asked if any of the hogs had entered the human food supply, FDA’s Chief veterinarian Stephen Sundlof said: “At this point, I don’t have a definitive answer other than to say that the issue is being addressed.”

FDA officials are working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and several states to investigate the now-quarantined farms and determine if those hogs were slaughtered for human food.

“I don’t have the numbers on that right now, but it potentially affects thousands of hogs,” Sundlof said. “Some of the hog operations were fairly sizable.” (Story.)

A criminal probe has been opened, and slowly but surely theories begin to emerge. (By the way, bookmark David Goldstein’s HorsesAss.org, a place that’s doing a bang-up job tracking this story as it evolves – he’s the one who put me onto the protein-boosting angle.) Let me shorthand the thinking and you can bop over to HorsesAss for more detail.

What we may have going on here is a massive program of industrial product tampering. Corn gluten, rice gluten and wheat gluten imported from China is the source of the melamine contamination, and not being a chemist I hadn’t realized initially that melamine (“a urea-derived chemical used in plastic and slow-release nitrogen fertilizer”) is an agent in a process that would allow manufacturers to game apparent protein levels in their prodicts. Goldstein quotes Steve Pickman, a VP at MGP Ingredients, the nation

15 replies »

  1. I know a guy who works for the CDC. He said their funding has been cut more in the past 4 years than it ever has been in its history. They’re spending all of their time justifying their positions to the Feds rather than actually, ummm, controlling disease. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s part of it.

  2. A clearer reason for this has been rather horribly straightforward. Protein content is extremely important in processed food (such as canned products, pet food and baby food). The simplest and most effective way to test food is to check sulphur levels, since protein contains a lot of sulphur (think eggs and baked-beans).

    The Chinese manufacturers have decided to cut costs further by decreasing the amount of protein (expensive) in their supplements and replacing it with a good source of sulphur that will fool the tests. You guessed it, melamine.

    So, now we have to develop test to check whether not only our athletes are being doped, but also our food.

  3. I think this is what Pickman is getting at, although your explanation is a little easier for a non-chemist like me to grasp. So, how complicated (and expensive) would it be to implement this kind of testing?

  4. A friend who works for a large government agency (and who really really really doesn’t want to get fired) passes this along:

    >>Since George W. Bush became president, OSHA has issued the fewest significant standards in its history, public health experts say. It has imposed only one major safety rule. The only significant health standard it issued was ordered by a federal court.

    The agency has killed dozens of existing and proposed regulations and delayed adopting others. For example, OSHA has repeatedly identified silica dust, which can cause lung cancer, and construction site noise as health hazards that warrant new safeguards for nearly three million workers, but it has yet to require them.

  5. So why is the worlds largest producer of foodstuffs importing from China in the first place? I am dumbfounded by that fact alone.

  6. Where’s Upton Sinclair when you need him? Oh, yeah. Dead.

    And in an Information Culture, where every news agency from the networks to the local TV news mannequins pose a “danger” 5 times a week, the chance of somebody being able to raise enough real hell about this to get people fired, voted out, impeached, prosecuted, embargoed or otherwise suitably punished for such…wait for it…evil doing is slim to none.

  7. There’s a simple way for people to avoid problems like this – eat real food. You know, fruits, veggies, cooked meat, that sort of thing. Avoid the processed foods like the plague, and most of the gluten problems disappear. And you don’t even need to go organic (although this usually works too), just eat fewer meals out of boxes and foil wrappers and eat more stuff from the produce and raw meat sections.

    It usually costs less too, but meals like this take time to prepare. Tradeoffs, tradeoffs….

  8. Bush is to blame, period. He wants less government and taxes. This is the result of a republican agenda. Lets face it organic food is good but expensive, and only rich people can eat it regularly. This is part of a master plan–endanger the lives of the average citizens.

  9. I just bought a whole pork loin that came from California,I’m sure. I think I’ll go down to the Post Office and mail it, third class, to the FDA in Washington DC. Or better yet to Georgie Boy AKA the Chimp, cause he has stolen all of the money that should be used to stop this crap.

  10. Jeff – fair point. I’ve done a little research on this, and I can’t find much about how the melamine contamination of animals could directly effect human food supplies.

    I’m hesitant to freak out over animals in the human foodstock being fed melamine because we just don’t know yet how much of the melamine is absorbed by the animal’s tissues. If melamine is largely metabolized, then eating the meat of an animal may not be a major problem. At this point we just don’t know.

    We should be cautious, but I’m FAR more concerned about eating foods that have gluten in them directly than I am about eating an animal that may have eated contaminated gluten.

  11. Simple tests do exist to spot melamine; and don’t go all moggy on your test centres – this isn’t on their radar.

    Do you have any idea how many bazillions of chemicals there are in the world? Unless you’re prepared to wait six months for a basic pizza to get tested by a lab, and cost about 100 times more – you can’t test for everything.

    This isn’t the first time that non-food items have been added to food to “correct” their constituency and so make them appear to be more valuable. The entire Austrian wine-making fraternity was hit a few years ago by a scandal in which they put antifreeze (diethylene glycol) into their wine – again, not something test centres expect to find in a food-stuff. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wine_fraud

    Since then, it is a standard test in he industry. Perhaps we’ll be doing the same with melamine soon.