By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 14, 2008
Federal food safety officials yesterday began holding up shipments of food from China that contain milk or milk-derived ingredients in the largest effort to date to keep products tainted with the industrial chemical melamine from reaching U.S. consumers.
The Food and Drug Administration is requiring importers of the halted shipments to test for the chemical, which is used to make plastic and fertilizer but has been added to human and animal food to boost protein readings. The types of products likely to be waylaid are cookies, candies, and other goods made with milk or milk powder.
If an importer can prove his product is not tainted, FDA will release it, said Steve Solomon, the agency's deputy associate commissioner for compliance and policy. The agency also will step up its testing of products already on the market.
FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach and Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt are scheduled to travel to China next week to meet with food safety officials there about melamine and other issues, and to open FDA offices in three Chinese cities.
Since September, FDA officials have recalled several products -- sold mainly in ethnic grocery stores -- due to possible melamine contamination. They chose to take broader measures yesterday based on the results of product testing and on information from food safety officials in other countries.
"We're taking regulatory action to make sure we're controlling these products," Solomon said. Consuming large amounts can lead to kidney stones and even death.
FDA officials said they were taking action despite the small likelihood that melamine in processed foods is harmful, as was the case with infant formula in China. At least four infants have died and tens of thousands more have become sick. "The finished product is not going to cause the same adverse affects," Solomon said.
The FDA recently did a risk assessment of melamine and concluded that for products other than infant formula, levels of melamine below 2.5 parts per million do not raise public health concerns.
Consumer advocates had a mixed reaction to the FDA's action. "Given the revelations of the extent of the problem in China, this step is both precautionary and appropriate," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based advocacy group. "The question is, did FDA wait too long to stop the spigot?"
Concern over the scope of melamine contamination in the global food supply has been growing since Chinese officials first acknowledged the infant formula problem. Since then, melamine has been found in frozen yogurt, instant coffee, and chocolates sold in countries such as Singapore, New Zealand, South Korea, Spain, Yemen, Canada and the United States. In recent weeks, the chemical has also turned up on Chinese eggs and in fish feed.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who chairs the appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the FDA, said the agency should have acted sooner and included egg and fish products. "Clearly, the problems involving melamine in China are significantly deeper than FDA would have us believe," she said.
Melamine is officially banned from human and animal food in China. The prohibition was put in place after last year's recalls of melamine-tainted pet food and the deaths of thousands of pets in the United States. Chinese officials have made arrests in the infant formula scandal and vowed to step up regulation.