HONG KONG: Hong Kong mother Shirley Lo stocked her refrigerator with soymilk
and switched to buying imported chocolates for her son after melamine was found
in baby formula and milk products in China.
But when eggs from China tested positive for melamine in Hong Kong late last
month, Lo threw up her hands in despair.
"It's horrifying," she said. "It's clear it has gone into basic foods and
into our food chain. My son has been trying to comfort me, saying he must be
very strong because his body must be full of this stuff and yet he is not sick."
The discovery of melamine in eggs, as well as in baby formula, milk products,
biscuits, chocolates and other foodstuffs containing milk derivatives confirms
what experts have long suspected; that the chemical is deeply embedded in the
human food chain.
And it's not just melamine; heavy metals such as lead and mercury, which can
cause brain damage, as well as cadmium, a compound used in batteries, pesticides
and antibiotics, are all present in the human food chain.
China is a major transgressor as carcinogenic chemicals are regularly used as
food-colouring agents or as preservatives, experts say.
"In China, food safety is not a concern and all sorts of things, like sudan
red and malachite green, are added in food, so food contamination is
widespread," said Peter Yu, a professor of biology and chemical technology at
the Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
"We also have environmental contamination from pesticides, formaldehyde (to
kill bacteria)," Yu said, citing the use of malachite green, a carcinogenic
agent that, in 2006, was found in fish from China. It had been added to
eradicate fungal disease in the fish.
Leading food manufacturers regularly test their ingredients and final
products for many of these contaminants, but experts say it's impossible to keep
up with all the foreign compounds that land up on the dinner table, especially
in China, where regulation is lax and difficult to enforce.
In the wake of the melamine scandal, China is reviewing a tougher draft food
safety law following criticism from the United Nations for its sluggish response
to the tainted milk scandal.
The melamine saga has surprised even some food producers, who say they find
it hard to keep up with strange additives that are added to food. Melamine, for
example, was added to baby formula to cheat protein level tests.
"How did we come up with cadmium or heavy metals? Because we know they would
kill people. That's why we test for them. But we didn't know melamine would even
be in food," said a manager who works for a major foreign food producer with
factories in China.
"We never had melamine in our specifications (contaminants to look out for).
If it is melamine today, it will be something else tomorrow. We can't possibly
test for every toxin in the world," said the manager, who declined to be named
because he was not authorised to speak to reporters.
Tens of thousands of children in China have fallen ill with kidney problems
in recent months, and at least four have died, after being fed infant formula
that was later found to have been mixed with melamine.
Subsequent tests found melamine in a variety of Chinese-made products, from
milk and chocolate bars to yoghurt and other products exported around the world,
leading to items being pulled from shop shelves and massive recalls.
But with the discovery of melamine in eggs, apparently due to contaminated
feed given to chickens, the chemical appears to be far more entrenched in the
human food chain than first thought.
Melamine and its derivatives are widely used in animal feed and pesticides in
China, but no one knows how harmful they can be to people after prolonged
Hong Kong imposed a cap on melamine in September to no more than 2.5mg per
kilogram, while food meant for children under 3 and lactating mothers should be
no more than 1mg per kg.
Experts say the limits are arbitrary and called for more tests and science
when imposing safety limits.
"The limits are derived from animal studies but we don't know what our
exposure is. What if we are accumulating more than is safe?" said Chan
King-ming, biochemistry professor at the Chinese University.
"There should be surveys to find out what foods have melamine and their
concentrations. Then we know how serious it is."
A World Health Organisation (WHO) official said this week some of the
affected children in China, most of whom are believed to be under the age of 3,
have "crystals" in their kidneys. Some might need surgery to avoid potentially
deadly kidney failure.
"Melamine is not soluble. But if it is very concentrated, as in the case of
these Chinese kids (whose diet was mostly formula), it forms into crystals,"
said Allen Chan, associate professor of chemical pathology at the Chinese
Permanent liver damage can be caused when crystals suddenly form into large
numbers of tubules in the kidneys of children who have consumed melamine,
causing chronic kidney failure and requiring dialysis and even kidney
transplants later on in life.
The WHO plans to make a detailed assessment of the risks of long-term
consumption of melamine. It has asked China to provide information for a meeting
of experts in December.
Anthony Hazzard, WHO's regional adviser for food safety, said experts needed
information on the levels of melamine detected in the affected children, details
on length of exposure and treatment and the age groups of the worst affected
"We understand that they will participate and provide data, so we don't, at
this moment, fear any cover up . . . we expect full co-operation," Hazzard said.
Melamine contamination is the latest in a long list of food scandals
involving China. Experts say it is a wake-up call for governments to strictly
enforce food safety laws and for food producers and manufacturers to tighten
"The ethics lie in the businesses. They must make sure their supply chains
are supplying ingredients that are safe. The role of government is to enforce
and ensure companies are implementing good manufacturing and hygienic
practices," Hazzard said. - Reuters