The list of food contaminated by melamine that originated from China keeps getting longer. The New England Journal of Medicine calls the presence of melamine in food a major public health product, claiming that it resulted in 294,000 children hospitalized for health problems in China, and that it may have sickened children in other parts of Asia that imported the baby formula.

Melamine, usually used for manufacturing plastics, can cause kidney stones if taken in large amounts.

Why Melamine? Because it contains large amounts of nitrogen, and companies testing products such as milk or animal feed test the percentage of protein by testing the nitrogen level.

Originally, the melamine was discovered when melamine contaminated dog and cat food caused the deaths of pets. Like baby formula, often the majority of food eaten came from the petfood, so huge amounts were ingested, causing illness and even death.

But the milk contamination spread a larger web of poison, not only in children, but in candy, biscuits and other products that used powdered milk from China as part of their ingredients.

The latest report?

On Dec. 5, national retail giant Walmart recalled 173 of their 9-inch high “Dressy Teddy Bear.” The bear holds a 4-oz. chocolate bar.

The NEJM table of contaminated foods can be found at this link.

The good news is that smaller amounts may not be as toxic. As the NEJM reports, small amounts of melamine from plastic containers have entered into the food chain for years, along with melamine in fertilizer; there is little scientific  information on the toxicity of small amounts. However, when the food is contaminated with melamine and cyanuric acid, as was the baby formula, it may confer a higher risk. Cyanuric acid, a product that often contaminates melamine, like melamine is not very toxic, but when the two chemicals are together, they can cause kidney stones in animals and humans.

But now, someone started tracing the chemical by using specialized testing, and melamine was found in eggs from chickens fed melamine contaminated feed.

The latest scare is that melamine has been found in fish imported from China.

Fish farming goes back two thousand years in Asia, and is a cheap source of protein for country folks. But in more recent years, farmed fish such as tilapia, catfish, shrimp, and salmon has become a big business.

How it works here is that farmers buy fingerling fish from companies, and feed the fish in their smaller ponds, selling them when mature. In our area, it is small businesses and cooperative; in other areas, there are cooperatives and/or huge fish farms to supply the food.

Fish in smaller ponds often feed on insects, smaller fish, algae, or rice. In larger ponds, to get faster growing fish, you have to give them extra feed.It seems like in this case the feed may have been contaminated, and the melamine deposited into the fish (whereas animals like pigs or cows would have the melamine removed by their kidneys and excreted; the melamine in milk was added after it left the cow, not from feed).

But now melamine has been found in some of the imported products by fish importers who checked into the possibility. There is no FDA mandate to check for melamine contamination (which is a “new” problem).

The good news is that those importing Chinese fish into the US will now either find different sources (e.g. the Philippines or Viet Nam).

The bad news: does anyone know where the feed that is fed to these fish comes from ???

We eat locally grown tilapia. But I have no idea if the fish food comes from China, or is made locally with ingredients imported from China.

So as you see, the melamine trail may become longer and more complicated as more and more foods are implicated.

Finally, the really bad news is that this “epidemic” is purely man made, due to criminal adulteration of animal food and milk to make a profit.

One way to stop this is of course more regulation and stricter testing.

But another way is to encourage a revival of ethics.

Here in the Philippines, we have enough bribery and graft scandals not to point fingers at the Chinese government.And an America where governors sell senator’s seats and investors lose billions due to shenanigans in the stock market has no right to point fingers either.

Regulations are always one step behind the dishonest.

But another, slower way to promote honest business practices is reviving the idea of ethical behavior in society.

Here in the Philippines, the Protestant middle class is at the forefront of promoting honesty in business.

This may not work in a China where only ten percent are reported to be Christian, but the good news is that China is starting to encourage a revival of Confuscian values to encourage honesty among businessmen and government officials.

No, one can never get rid of rogues and schemers in any society, but a society where a man prides himself on acting honorably more than making money will have fewer thieves in the long run.


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. Her website is Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket, and she writes about medicine at HeyDoc Xanga blog.

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