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Zem Joaquin Headshot

Melamine is Mean Stuff

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Last week, I was at my daughter's friend's fabulous Asian-themed birthday party. Since the father is an event planner, it was no surprise to me that no detail was missed, including bowls filled with the popular White Rabbit rice candies, imported from China. Shocked, I grabbed the bowls and asked the girl's mother if she had heard that they had been recalled. She had not, though she knew that other Chinese food products had been found to contain melamine. This episode got me thinking more about melamine, which is mostly associated with cheap white furniture we find at big box stores and hard plastic plates decorated with cartoon characters, and how it could have possibly ended up in food! While I am comfortable eating something that may also occur in a natural cleaning product (think vinegar and lemon, or even cucumber, which is often used in skin care products), I don't feel comfortable eating something that is normally used in the production of cheap furniture.

Melamine is an organic compound that is often combined with formaldehyde to form a fire resistant and heat tolerant resin. It is supposedly safe for humans to consume at very low levels (The European Commission says that the level of melamine in food products should never exceed 2.5mg/kg), but some foods recently identified in China contained up to 60 times the accepted limit. After this discovery, the UK's Food Standards Agency (FSA) announced that they found items containing 152mg/kg on supermarket shelves.

The scare began with contaminated infant formula. Chinese officials have accused some milk suppliers of adding the chemical, which is high in nitrogen, to certain batches of milk to artificially boost its protein content so that they could mix it with water to save money. This chemical, when consumed, can cause problems in the kidneys and bladder which may, in rare cases, lead to death: at least four children in China have died, and more than 50,000 have become sick with kidney problems this year as a result of consuming baby formula that contains this toxic chemical. Following the formula fiasco, melamine was also discovered in eggs and candy. Although outraged people wonder how this could have happened, it was only a little over a year ago that information was released about pet food being tainted with melamine, which was apparently routinely added to animal feed as a fake protein. Now that humans are the animal being tricked, I hope more of us respond proactively to this wake-up call.

China has vowed to begin better regulation on melamine. Europe will likely tighten up their policies and everyone will be wary for a while. But before business goes back to usual, you may want to personally commit to applying the precautionary principal when it comes to things you put in or on your body (after all, 60% of what you put on it gets absorbed), or into the air you breathe.

The best solution is to buy local and organic, but knowing where your food is coming from, period, is best practice. If your kids need candy, like mine do, make it organic and keep in mind that the less ingredients the better. Avoid anything that you cannot pronounce and read labels carefully. Of course, melamine would not be listed as an ingredient, so stick to simplicity. You can even make easy dog food - just cook ground chicken, peas and squash (I cook enough for four days at a time). Make sure the furniture you buy is safe, too: avoid unknown plastic pieces and when you buy wood products, they should be FSC certified, formaldehyde-free and, if it is painted, at least low-VOC, if not non-VOC.

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