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Melamine - what it is and why it was used in food

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  1. My understanding, from the dog food melamine incident, is that certain mixtures and ingredients have to have a particular protein content to be included in the food item. So a lab test is called for. The test for protein is not a direct test ... instead, the protein content is calculated from a test for certain nitrogen-containing compounds in the ingredient. (Protein being a nitrogen-containing compound.) Unscrupulous dealers who knew their poor-quality ingredient was too low in protein figured out that they could boost their lab-tested nitrogen content by adding non-food, cheap melamine to the ingredient and thus pass the test and sell it to the food producer. In small amounts, melamine isn't a problem, so these guys probably got away with it for a while. But as we saw with the dog food, some of these guys were putting hefty quantities of the adulterant in there, and then the puppies started dying.

    I believe in normal practice, melamine is used in plastics manufacturing.

    8 Replies
    1. re: k_d

      Exactly, k_d. Replace food content with plastic to keep the weight of the product the same, pay off those who inspect for such atrocities, get the U.S. to buy it at the usual price, and then act shocked! when the horror is found out.

      1. re: dolores

        Well actually, dolores, the thing about this scheme is that you hardly have to pay anyone off. The protein test (actually nitrogen test) does not tell you where the nitrogen is coming from ... just that what the level is. So your low-protein ingredient appears to be much higher in protein (because it was higher in nitrogen). It's not really a plastic. It's one of the components you use to make plastic objects, so it would look like flour or starch or other common food ingredient.

        1. re: k_d

          That is interesting info, k_d, but I had been monitoring the situation long before the press broke it, and, thankfully, had been warned away from the food that contained the melamine.

          UNTIL many dogs started dying, those who could do something about it were not. Hence, to my mind, the payola.

          Money talks, nobody walks. That's life.

      2. re: k_d

        yes, the article says that melamine is used in manufacturing plastics: "Melamine is a white powder used in plastic-making. It was first synthesised by a German scientist in the 1830s."

        1. re: alkapal

          I believe melamine is what makes Mel-mac and other similar plastic dinnerware ( like "corelle livingware") less likely to shatter or chip. I wouldn't let my dog eat any Mel-mac if I were you....

          1. re: adamshoe

            Why not? Is there any evidence that melamine is ingested when eating from plastics made with it? Both the pet food problem, and this recent milk one, are the result of producers adding the melamine powder to food items. Don't confuse the two uses.

            Many of us grew up eating from melamine plates, and did not develop the kinds of kidney problems that these pets and babies did. I've had kidney stones, but they have nothing to do with melamine.

            1. re: paulj

              adamshoe said "eat any Melmac", not "eat FROM any Melmac"

              1. re: coney with everything

                oops, missed that difference. What came to mind were plastic food bowls. My dog may lick the bowl clean, but hasn't shown any inclination to chew it. He's not even a big fan of chew toys.

                I suspect that even if a dog did gnaw on a plastic item like this, the crumbs would pass through his system, without any the melamine being absorbed.

        1. re: jfood

          It makes me wonder whether some of the instant coffee mixes from other Asian countries such as Vietnam and Malaysia might so be contaminated.

          1. re: jfood

            "As of Thursday, FDA testing of milk-based products imported into the United States from China had not found any melamine contamination, an agency statement said."
            having worked in investigations involving fda and its shoddy bureaucratic practices, i take zero, zilch, nada comfort from this grossly misleading statement -- AS IF fda had tested more than minuscule amounts of imports.......

            http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/artic... "Additionally, FDA is sampling and testing milk and milk-derived ingredients and finished food products that could contain these ingredients from Chinese sources. Milk-derived ingredients include whole milk powder, non-fat milk powder, whey powder, lactose powder, and casein."

            1. re: alkapal

              Note that while the FDA is sampling many products that may have milk from Chinese sources, there is no report, yet, that they have found problems.

              1. re: alkapal

                you are giving the FDA too much credit with zero zilch and nada.

                1. re: jfood

                  Indeed, they are sorely underfunded and I think their current mission statement is to let the invisible hand of the free market determine where the bad actors are. You know, like when people or animals get sick, the market will work its magic and the company will find itself financially harmed. Too bad that babies or dogs have to die first for this to happen, isn't it...

                  1. re: coney with everything

                    fraud is not an acceptable factor in the legitimate free market. it is criminal behavior and should be punished as such.

                    i understand that one individual in china was executed for --- iirc -- the pet food contamination (or was it the heparin?) <gee, so many freakin' chinese adulteration scandals, so little time.>

                    1. re: alkapal

                      Scapegoat. The entire system is corrupt. Its going to be tough to really eradicate the corruption.

            2. I'm starting to look twice at the canned gluten ("mock duck," seitan) we use, especially that from Taiwan. Anyone have any info on "protein" loading with this product? Cay

              2 Replies
              1. re: cayjohan

                When I last bought a can of seitan, I checked the country of origin. Since it was Taiwan I figured it was safe, reasoning that it was more likely to be made from local gluten sources than imports from China. Given the well known pet food problems last year, even Chinese sources of gluten are safer now - it would be foolhardy for a company to accept such gluten without testing it for melamine.

                new article on food testing in Taiwan:
                and an explanation of what is melamine

                1. re: paulj

                  Taiwan is in upheavals now because they import so much food stuff from China, just like everyone else. They are finding melamine in a whole lot of imports, not just powdered milk. My family has taken to buying stuff made by Taiwanese companies in the US, not sure this is effective or not.

              2. this u.k. article intimates that chocolate bars made with chinese milk powder are also a potential hazard. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/world...

                our labeling laws should be changed to require full disclosure of country of origin -- most markedly pertaining to KNOWN purveyors of deadly ingredients, like our esteemed trading "partner" the "people's" republic of china.

                  1. re: alkapal

                    Thank You for the warning Jefferson Airplane

                    1. re: jfood

                      "one pill makes you larger, one pill makes you small, some milk/heparin/dog food from china, you have no kidneys at all...." <with feeling>

                  2. What I don't understand is why we have products like milk imported here from someplace as far away as China. If it is specifically a Chinese item, such as the candy mentioned, fine. But dried milk itself? What, we don't have enough here and it is actually more cost effective to import it from the other side of the planet? I just don't understand. Reminds me of the day a few years ago that I bought some frozen organic spinach from Trader Joe's. Noticed when I got home: "Product of China". This is spinach, something grown in abundance here. If it were something that was only grown in certain parts of the world, fine. But frozen spinach?????

                    8 Replies
                    1. re: poptart

                      Just conjecture on my part, but I'm guessing that the bulk milk powder is probably not coming to the US. It sounds like the adulterated powder is making its way across the world via products made by producers who have sourced the bulk milk powder from the source(s) in China - most of which are in and around Asia. When producers are purchasing this ingredient, they are buying massive quantities - tons. They will probably have some broker source the ingredient at the best price given the quality standards set by the producer - in this case, minimum protein standards. This commodity flies under the radar as legitimate as it passes the primary test for nitrogen. Once entering the factory, the rest is history, just as in the pet food issue.

                      The flip side obviously is that because this commodity is exchanged on the international market and is purchased in mass quantities, the profit margin is slim. If an unscrupulous producer can eek out a couple cents, yuan, whatever, extra per kilo, this translates into huge profits when it is being sold in such huge quantities.

                      The profit margins in China are very slim from what I understand. Competition among suppliers and manufacturers for overseas business is very heated - everyone is figuring out where they can cut costs. Believe it or not, cheap labor is actually becoming harder to find now (a good source tells me that Chinese shoe manufacturers are going to places like Mongolia to set up new factories where labor is cheaper). Laborers are demanding better working conditions and compensation. The manufacturing sector is overbuilt which means overcapacity - imagine the housing boom we had over here except 100x greater where office buildings, warehouses and manufacturing plants are waiting for tenants. The demand for manufacturing has also slipped and will only get worse based on the current global economic downturn. Times aren't going to be gold and glitter for most in China for long. They are going to get hit hard when all of these general factors come to an apex like they did over here, but the magnitude will be much greater. For now, China is very cash-rich. I can see the country riding out bad times for a while, but in the mean time, as the world's economies starts to slow down, and the supply side in China goes through some corrections, margins will continue to slip and I think more of these consumer safety issues will come up unless various checks are put into place by the public and private sectors.

                      1. re: bulavinaka

                        bulavinaka, you have hit the nail on the head, presenting a thorough, cogent and thoughtful observation about economic realities in the global economic system. thank you.

                        1. re: alkapal

                          >>more of these consumer safety issues will come up unless various checks are put into place by the public and private sectors.

                          You said it.

                          Don't hold your breath.

                        2. re: bulavinaka


                          very nice synopsis. jfood would add that the US government now owes multi-$100Bn to the chinese for investments. Likewise the Chinese are beginning to feel the pain of their manufacturing morass as companies are looking to southeast asia as better and less expensive sourcing (VN and Thailand). And let's not forget the drugs that are made there for consumption as generic in the US in the last 16 months. Made in China is going to equal Use at your own risk soon.

                          1. re: jfood

                            A friend has been brokering electronic circuitry for about 10 years now. Up unitl the past few years, business was great and the service he provided was invaluable to many manufacturers. What has changed is the accountability on the supply side. Because so much of the E-waste now goes to China for disassembly, it has become a true industry. Chips, resistors, etc., are meticulously removed from boards, "prettied up," and put back on the market as new. Clones and counterfeits are also flooding the market from China. At first, it was a trickle of bogus parts. A defense contractor here, a petroleum producer there, would complain of parts blowing out or malfunctioning. Now, the problems is widespread and at a huge scale. Parts that can be verified or are suspected as coming from China must be held in escrow, examined and tested before the funds can be released. The huge increase in stem time has brought this sector of the circuitry industry to a crawl, and my friend is now considering closing shop. The whole legitimacy issue in this industry has reduced his turnover to a fraction of what was considered normal.

                            This issue of legitimacy is something that will eventually touch everyone. The pervasive threads of China's influence that course through our daily lives will eventually lead to a change in how someone does business, whether it is here or over there. The "fly-by-night" nature of so many businesses in China makes accountability very difficult - at least from my aforementioned friend's standpoint. I don't know how accountable the Chinese government is right now or if they even have the ability to hold every single business accountable - the gold rush boom-like phenomenon that has been experienced in China now for the past twenty or so years must create a perpetual atmosphere of controlled chaos. Maybe like in Mexico with the tainted jalapeno issue, various levels of thrid-party certification will become more of an issue. In hopes of reducing the chances of costly litigation and damage to their reputation, marketers of commodities and finished products from China will be more inclined to purchase from those who have established and certified business practices.

                            1. re: bulavinaka

                              Fascinating information, bulavinaka. Too bad not a darned thing can be done about it.

                              1. re: dolores

                                well, if consumers know of phony/faulty practices (which is a big caveat), we can shun chinese products. (although they are ubiquitous.)

                                and we can demand greater inspections from disinterested third-parties or the federal government.

                                1. re: alkapal

                                  >>we can shun chinese products.


                                  >>we can demand greater inspections from disinterested thjrd-parties or the federal government.

                                  After you.

                      2. taiwan, australia, hong kong cadbury's fans: don't eat that chocolate!!!

                        and from the same article:
                        "Meanwhile, two U.S. food makers were investigating Indonesian claims that high traces of melamine were found in Chinese-made Oreos, M&Ms and Snickers."

                        4 Replies
                        1. re: alkapal

                          Wait, OREOS are made in China????????????????

                          No, seriously? OREOS???????????????

                          Wow. Just wow.

                          1. re: dolores

                            dolores, i really don't know. in the past, i would have said that those made in china are for regional asian export. but these days.......?

                            1. re: alkapal

                              As someone who knows, I can say you are correct. The Oreos made in China are sold in China and the Asia region, not in the US. Unless it's a really unique product, most US food manufacturers are going to manufacture locally for foreign markets, since its so expensive to ship and the labor costs are lower in Asia. Conversely, the only places you usally find them producing for the US market outside the US are Canada and sometimes Mexico.

                          2. re: alkapal

                            As you can see from this article, they needed not only to reformulate the sweetness factor but the entire thing. Does not even seem like an Oreo any longer. So it is probably an intra-Asia market. Interesting is the reference to milk, so the little kiddies over there get the plastic-fix in both the dunker and the dunkee.


                          3. don't drink mr. brown's instant coffee from china, sold here in u.s. http://www.winknews.com/features/heal... (edit: oh, i just saw jfood posted about this upthread...


                            man, when it rains it pours. and i think we all know this is just the tip of the iceberg. <ok, cliche button now toggling "off">

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: alkapal

                              Fortunately, I refuse to drink any coffee name, "Mr. Brown". lol

                              1. re: jfood

                                Alot of the DOLE fruit cups are from CHINA- and we don not purchase them anymore. Anything with the label, made in CHINA is put back on the shelf.

                                I have oval plates from Smart and Final that I love, and they are melaime- who can tell me that they are not bad? My husband is promising to throw them out.

                                This is all so distressing- but buy local means more to me these days than ever.

                                1. re: JalamaMama

                                  There is a difference between melamine, the nitrogen rich chemical that has used to cheat protein tests, and melamine resin, a hard plastic used for utensils, plates, Formica, and other purposes. The main disadvantage of melamine resin in the kitchen is that it cannot be used in the microwave because it heats up by itself. It is not being implicated as a source of melamine contamination of food.


                                  edit - this Melamine article does cite a study the detected low levels of (possible) migration of melamine from melamine resin into beverages (cite 44, 1987). You might need full access to a scientific literature database to see if there was any followup.

                                  1. re: paulj

                                    Thank you for the info...bye-bye melaime plates.

                                    1. re: JalamaMama

                                      I suspect that in old study (1987) the liquids were in contact with their containers for quite some time - i.e. had been stored or shipped in them. In contrast, your food is on the melamine resin plate for just a short time. So any migration from plate to food would be considerably less.

                                      Also, up until the pet food scare, many, if not all, regulatory agencies considered a small level of melamine in food to be harmless. The recent contaminations have not shown that low levels are harmful, though agencies are starting to take a zero-tolerance policy. This is in response to intentional contamination rather than incidental, or unintentional, sources.

                                      The problem with these higher levels of contamination, is that the melamine can combine with other chemicals (cyanuric acid?) in the kidneys and form crystals. I haven't read of low levels being implicated in this way.

                                      There are other chemicals that we all eat that can, under high enough concentrations, produce crystals in kidneys. For example calcium and oxalic acid produce the most common type of kidney stone. You may be taking calcium supplements for your bones. Among foods, spinach and rhubarb have the highest concentrations of oxalic acid. We don't eat rhubarb leaves because they are even higher in this acid. But, except for individuals who have a history of kidney stones, neither calcium or oxalic acid food sources are restricted. Oxalic acid is also the principal ingredient in Bar-keepers-friend and other household cleaners.

                                      I don't plan to toss out my melamine plates or spoons.

                                      1. re: paulj

                                        According to a new FDA statement, incidental amounts of melamine, on the order of 2.5 pmm, "would not raise health concerns, even if a person ate food every day that was tainted with the chemical."

                                        "The 2.5 parts-per-million standard is meant to address situations in which the chemical accidentally comes into contact with food. For example, plastic food processing equipment may have been made using melamine, and some of the chemical might find its way into food."

                                        But infant formula should be completely free of melemine.

                                        1. re: paulj

                                          According to a new FDA statement, incidental amounts of melamine, on the order of 2.5 pmm,

                                          Well, isn't that special?

                                          How about pet food, are they going to put the 2.5pmm back into pet food? I am confident they can be trusted to put 2.5pmm and no more than 2.5pmm into the pet food.

                                          Yup, I trust them.

                                          1. re: dolores

                                            If you don't trust the FDA, you need to brush up on your chemistry, including methods like liquid chromatography, so you can run your own tests. That's what was used in 1987 to detect levels up to 2.5 ppm in liquids that had been stored in melamine resin containers.

                                            "Recoveries of melamine ranged between 90.3 +/- 7.8 and 102.1 +/- 5.6% at levels of 0.6 to 2.4 ppm in 4 kinds of beverages."

                              2. See, I don't think it's something that can be blamed on "China" as such....it's what happens in any up-and-coming nation. Or even an established place, like our very own US. We don't have a monopoly on morality, that's for sure. I know it's easier said than done, but this could all be used as a back to the earth, know your supplier argument. An importing blogger I read said this:
                                "Consumers are confident they may consume what is on the shelves. Some retailers are confident as well. When you buy the product you are trusting the retailer, who is trusting the government. The unscrupulous maker can combine with the unscrupulous importer, and bring the bad stuff in." - http://hbhblog.blogspot.com/2008/10/m...
                                People really shouldn't trust blindly, especially with consumable products.

                                10 Replies
                                1. re: Papuli

                                  >it's what happens in any up-and-coming nation

                                  So, they get a pass for putting non-food products in food that will kill?

                                  >People really shouldn't trust blindly, especially with consumable products.

                                  So how does one make intelligent decisions? Based on the list of ingredients?

                                  Oh, wait, no. The non-food product that will kill isn't ON the list of ingredients, is it now?

                                  So who is trusting blindly? What are the alternatives to trusting at all? DO we have a choice?

                                  1. re: dolores

                                    What, we don't all have laboratory test kits for toxins and dangerous ingredients at home? Clearly you're not forward thinking enough.

                                    1. re: Blueicus

                                      How many toxins and dangerous ingredients are there in those kits? :)

                                      Apparently one of things that let melamine slip through the cracks was the fact that some protein tests were fairly easy to conduct, but melamine specific tests where more expensive. Until people started adding the melamine to fool one test, few agencies thought there was much need for the other. In any kind of regulated world, people try to find loopholes, ones that turn the regulations to their advantage.

                                      1. re: Blueicus

                                        Oh, ha ha :).
                                        I'm not arguing that any of this is ok. I'm just saying that this is not a problem unique to China. I'm agreeing with the essay I linked to that unscrupulous people exist everywhere, and I find it hard to believe that no one outside of China was unaware of this (for instance, Cadbury in Europe, perhaps).
                                        And obviously we as consumers can't help it if we're lied to...but we're still surprised by it? I feel like it's kind of a given at this point. Having said that, those who lost children, or have ill babies now, should receive huge restitution. I can't even imagine their pain.

                                        1. re: Papuli

                                          >but we're still surprised by it?

                                          Ah, gotcha now. No, absolutely not.

                                          Back when I used to eat at McDonald's, I used to enjoy getting the pamphlet with the ingredients and read while I noshed.

                                          I got a kick out of the fact that the 'strawberry' shake I was drinking had no strawberry, no ice cream, and no dairy (if I am recalling correctly). It DID, however, have propylene glycol in it, and when I looked that up, it is an ingredient found in underarm deodorant.

                                          You can't make this stuff up.

                                          So, caveat emptor? You betcha. But there is nothing we can do about it. Nothing.

                                          1. re: dolores

                                            If propylene glycol is safe to use in shakes, it must be safe to use on skin :)

                                            It is used in other skin lubricants as well. Tooth pastes, mouth washes and other uses are listed in the wiki article. Just because something has non-food uses does not mean it is harmful as a food.

                                            Relatively non-toxic. Ingestion of sizable amount (over 100ml) may cause some gastrointestinal upset and temporary central nervous system depression. Effects appear more severe in individuals with kidney problems.
                                            Skin Contact:
                                            Mild irritant and defatting agent, especially on prolonged contact. "

                                            1. re: dolores

                                              It does feel like we can't do much about it. In my own small way I try to buy as little as possible of foods that are questionable, try to buy more "local", which these days sometimes feels like anything made on the North American continent. Eating out we don't have much control but every little bit less of questionable ingredients/chemicals etc, we ingest, the better.

                                              Oh yes, Propylene Glycol. It's also in shampoos and detergents. Stuff makes my skin break out in a rash. I have seen it listed as an ingredient in a grocery store bakery coffee cake. Yum.

                                              1. re: poptart

                                                poptart, I no longer have the strength to evaluate meticulously the food I buy and look for local foods.

                                                Foolishly, I leave that to an FDA I don't trust and a supermarket whose only aim is profits.

                                                Eating out is a whole other story. I don't want to know where my food's been or what's happening to it in the kitchen. If I don't get sick after eating out, I'm happy.

                                                I understand how you want to make an effort, we all 'should', but I'm too cynical to think that we can really govern our ingestions unless we grow it ourselves.

                                                It's a shame but hey that's life.

                                                1. re: dolores

                                                  I definitely understand that. It's easy for me to "try" because there are farmer's markets and stores near where I work that sell local stuff.

                                                  True...it's actually pretty amazing that more people don't get sick from eating out, when you think about it.

                                                  Life has so many trade-offs..I suppose these issues come up because we are so used to having all foods available all year long and have the means to transport something from one part of the globe to another. Pros and cons to that, I for one could not live without morning coffee and there's no way I could ever get locally grown beans where I live !! :-)

                                                2. re: poptart

                                                  It's also the primary ingredient in the "non toxic" (to pets) antifreeze. Regular antifreeze is ethylene glycol, IIRC.

                                      2. Now it is in the US iin White Rabbit Chocolate in CT


                                          1. re: alkapal

                                            Melamine "Free Willy" - What the world needs now, is untainted love, sweet love.....

                                            1. re: Servorg

                                              servorg, i had an authentic LOL from that one!