FDA Rules How Much Melamine Is Too Much

Oct. 4 -- FRIDAY, Oct. 3 (HealthDay News) -- With the Chinese milk products-melamine scandal generating fresh headlines, U.S. health officials on Friday unveiled what they consider acceptable levels of contamination with the industrial chemical.

The bottom line: No amount of melamine is safe in infant formula.

For all other foods, only amounts less than 2.5 parts per million are risk free, U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials said.

"For infant formula, we don't have sufficient information to be able to establish a level below which we have no concern," said Dr. Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. "For food other than infant formula, we do have sufficient information that we can establish what our levels of public health concern are."

Since early September, melamine-contaminated baby formula has sickened more than 54,000 children in China and is being blamed for at least four deaths. The chemical is typically used as a component in plastic but can be used to seemingly boost protein levels in foods.

The chemical has also turned up in dairy products sold across Asia and, to a lesser extent, Europe and the United States. It has been detected in candies, chocolates and coffee drinks. Authorities in California and Connecticut found melamine in White Rabbit candies imported from China.

To date, there have been no reports of illness from contaminated Chinese milk products in the United States, Sundlof said.

"There are no approved uses for melamine to be added to food in the United States or anywhere else that I am aware of," Sundlof said. "The fact that it was an intentionally added makes it even worse."

All of the information from China indicates that the chemical was intentionally added to milk and milk powder, Sundlof said. "It's a way of committing economic fraud. It is a way of taking milk and watering it down, then adding melamine to make it appear that it is milk," he said.

According to Sundlof, none of the five manufacturers that supplies infant formula to the United States uses any milk or milk products from China. But, there's a chance that contaminated infant formula may be circulating in Asian communities in the United States.

"We have conducted over 1,890 visits around the United States to local Asian markets looking for infant formula from China, and to date, we have not found any," Sundlof said. "Sometimes these products arrive by mail from relatives," he said.

Because melamine is a component in plastics, Sundlof said, "There is melamine dinnerware, cups, and even Formica countertops contain melamine. But the amount of melamine that actually transfers from those products into the food is very, very small."

Many American consumers first became aware of melamine contamination last year when tainted pet food from China killed more than 4,000 dogs and cats in the United States.

In determining its risk assessment standards for melamine contamination, the FDA concluded that levels of the chemical less than 2.5 parts per million are safe, Sundlof said. "If you had 1 million grains of sand, and they're all white sand, and you had two grains that were black -- that's what that means," he said.

The White Rabbit Creamery Candy recalled in California for melamine contained levels of 500 parts per million, Sundlof said.

On Friday, a New Jersey company said it was recalling a yogurt-type drink from China called "Blue Cat Flavor Drink," after FDA testing detected melamine, the Associated Press reported.

The outbreak of melamine contaminated milk products from China has spread to several nations, primarily in Asia and the Pacific region.

Vietnamese officials recalled and destroyed 18 food products from China. In the Philippines, two melamine contaminated milk products from China were found among 30 tested, the AP reported Friday.

On Wednesday, 12 more Chinese dairy companies were named as violators after tests found 31 batches of milk powder contaminated with melamine.

Recalls of melamine tainted products have also occurred in Australia, Great Britain, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Singapore and Thailand. In China, the chocolate maker Cadbury removed from store shelves all of its products made at its Beijing plant. Most of these products are sold in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

On Sept. 26, melamine-contaminated products were found in the United States, and the FDA announced the recall of seven of those products -- "Mr. Brown"-brand instant coffee and tea products made in China.

On Sept. 25, the European Union banned baby food products containing milk imported from China.

More information

To learn more, visit the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

SOURCES: Stephen Sundlof, D.V.M., Ph.D., director, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, U.S. Food and Drug Administration; Associated Press