Firms Struggle With Varied Rules on Melamine
By SKY CANAVES
HONG KONG -- Differing and shifting government regulations have complicated food companies' efforts to grapple with the widening Chinese tainted-milk scandal, leading to outright bans in some places for products that pass official muster in others.
U.S. regulators Friday said food products wouldn't raise health concerns if they contained levels below 2.5 parts per million of melamine, an industrial chemical at the center of the tainted-milk scandal. But they said they won't tolerate the use of melamine as a food additive, saying they couldn't determine a safe level for use in infant formula, citing gaps in scientific knowledge about its effect on babies. The agency said tainted formula hasn't been found in the U.S. (Statement)
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Meanwhile, other regulators around the world are scrambling to establish melamine limits where none previously existed. Taiwan had no standard until last week, when it set a tough limit of 0.05 parts per million. That led to a recall this week of Nestlé SA products after regulators said they found traces of melamine in Nestlé products made in China. Nestlé said that its products are safe and that the small traces found by Taiwan "exist in the natural food cycle."
Last week, Indonesian authorities announced that they had found melamine in a dozen Chinese-made products, including Nabisco Oreo wafers and Mars M&M's and Snickers, in quantities ranging from 8.5 to 945 parts per million. Mars Inc. and Kraft Foods Inc., which owns Nabisco, questioned the results, pointing to other jurisdictions where test results for the same Chinese-made products came up clean.
An Indonesia Food and Drug Control Agency spokeswoman, reached late Friday, said, "It is no surprise if the industry has complained, but that does not lessen its result." She said Indonesia follows World Health Organization guidelines for melamine levels, which are based on U.S. standards involving weight and diet. In a report issued last week, however, the WHO said that the U.S. approach "has a large uncertainty" due to the lack of data about the effects of various types of melamine and its interaction with other substances.
Multinational firms have warned that adopting tougher standards than those of the U.S. and Europe could lead to higher food costs and product unavailability. "If governments start adopting low tolerance reporting levels, that will have huge implications for many countries where most foods produced in those countries won't pass the test," said Khaled Rabbani, director of corporate and regulatory affairs for Asia Pacific for Mars.
Daniel Chan, a professor of nephrology at the University of Hong Kong, sees the justification for the tougher standards in Hong Kong and Taiwan. "Ideally, we would want none of it," he said. "But if that would have implications with the availability of choices or prices of materials involved, then we have to decide how far we're willing to be exposed to it."
Hong Kong adopted rules Sept. 23 that set a limit of one part per million for children under the age of three and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. For others, the territory adopted the European Union's standard of 2.5 parts per million. By comparison, one brand of milk powder implicated in the scandal, made by China's Shijiazhuang Sanlu Group Co., had levels exceeding 2,500 parts per million in powdered form, according to Chinese authorities.
In Asia, parts of which import far more food from China than in the West, there's a heightened sense of vulnerability to tainted products. Thousands of products have been tested so far in a number of countries.
Melamine's presence in Chinese-made baby formula has been blamed for the deaths of as many as four infants and sickening more than 50,000 others. China is still working on national standards, and Friday it posted a notice on the Web site of the Ministry of Science and Technology inviting the public to submit methods for detecting melamine in quantities of less than two parts per million within 30 minutes.
The chemical is generally considered safe for adults in minute amounts by other agencies that follow U.S. and EU standards. But little is known about the long-term health effects of the chemical that first rose to prominence as a contaminant a year ago during a tainted pet food scandal in the U.S.
In the U.S., the FDA has limited recall power, and it relies on manufacturers to pull questionable products off shelves. Since it warned against selling or eating one brand of Chinese-made candy called White Rabbit Creamy Candy, state officials in California, Connecticut and others have found it on shelves and warned consumers.
After promising to take a "zero tolerance" approach to melamine, on Sept. 24 Taiwan's health authorities said they would adopt the EU standard.