FDA Sets Safety Threshold for Contaminant Melamine

By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 4, 2008

Responding to concerns about the presence of the contaminant melamine in numerous foods made in China and exported to the United States and elsewhere, the Food and Drug Administration said yesterday that consuming a very small amount of the chemical poses no serious risk.

The exception, officials said, is melamine in baby formula, which has sickened more than 54,000 infants in China. The agency said it was unable to determine what a safe amount of melamine in formula might be.

The FDA set 2.5 parts per million as the maximum "tolerable" amount of melamine that could be safely consumed in other foods.

"It would be like if you had a million grains of sand and they were all white, and you had two or three that were black, that's kind of the magnitude," said Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA's food safety program.

Several melamine-contaminated foods found in recent weeks in the United States had far more of the chemical.

Melamine levels in imported Chinese candies recalled last week in California, for instance, were as high as 520 parts per million. White Rabbit candies from China were recalled after authorities in California and Connecticut found melamine. And Friday, a New Jersey company announced that it was recalling a yogurt-type drink from China -- Blue Cat Flavor Drink -- after FDA testing found melamine.

In China, melamine-tainted baby formula has sickened thousands and led to at least four deaths, mainly from kidney problems, according to the World Health Organization. The chemical, which can make it appear that a product is more nutritious and protein-rich than it actually is, has also been found in candies, chocolates, coffee drinks and other items made from Chinese dairy products.

American consumers first learned of the dangers of melamine when it was found last year in pet food ingredients made in China. The Chinese suppliers of the bulk ingredients had been adding the melamine, officials determined, to boost the apparent protein levels in product testing. Thousands of pets were sickened by the contaminated food, and hundreds may have died.

The FDA guidelines were issued to help federal and state investigators checking for contaminated Chinese products as they enter the country and in Asian grocery stores. Sundlof said the agency's goal is to identify products with potentially dangerous levels of melamine, rather than to find each small instance of contamination.

But Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), head of a House subcommittee that oversees FDA funding, criticized the agency for saying there could be safe levels of melamine in foods.

"While other countries throughout the world, including the European Union, are acting to ban melamine-contaminated products from China, the FDA has chosen to establish an acceptable level for melamine in food in an attempt to convince consumers that it is not harmful," DeLauro said in a statement. "Not only is this is an insult to consumers, but it would appear that the FDA is condoning the intentional contamination of foods."

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