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November 6th, 2008

The tip of the iceberg

Just when it seemed that the melamine scare couldn’t get any worse, we find out that the problem may be far deeper than we imagined. Eggs sold in Hong Kong, imported from mainland China, have been found to have twice the FDA‚ supposed “safe limit” of melamine. How did it get there? Apparently through contaminated feed , which means that beef, chicken, pork, and fish may also be at risk. However, U.S. and European agencies have yet to do something about it.

While Hong Kong authorities are responding by expanding their testing of products to include pork, fish, and offal products, the same sort of initiative has yet to be seen in the U.S.. And in Europe, while authorities admit to being aware of the situation, they still have not issued any sort of alert to consumers. In this they are showing an astonishing degree of willful irresponsibility, shockingly similar to FDA-backdated (and long overdue) recall of the contaminated Koala‚ March cookies.

It gets worse. The Taiwanese government found recently that ammonium bicarbonate, used in the manufacture of cookies, bread, and some Chinese snacks had melamine levels between 70 and 300 parts per million, when the legal limit in Taiwan, Province of China is only 2.5 parts per million. While Taiwanese authorities were quick to issue a ban on the sale of this item, the fact that it took this long for it to get discovered is cause for alarm.

Clearly the current food production standards in China are not designed to ensure public health. Even worse, the Chinese authorities have been anything but forthcoming about the issue. There are media sources that report that the health department of Liaoning found melamine in local eggs at the beginning of October. These same tainted eggs had been labeled by the food safety authorities as an ‚organic product.” While they did order an investigation into the feed company involved, they deliberately suppressed the news from the media.

In addition, a manager from a feed company based in the central Hen an province recently told the Associated Press that the practice of using melamine in feed has been going on longer than previously reported , at least seven or eight years. The fact that this sort of deception went unnoticed for so long, or worse might have been deliberately hidden from the public eye, is unacceptable. And to think that only now the world has begun to figure it out.

The assumption that leaving China to its own devices will lead them to fix the problem on their own is purely wishful thinking. More recalls are in order , but even more importantly, the inspection standards in our own country need to be vastly improved, as do those abroad. China is not the only one to blame if our own country‚ federal agencies will not take the time to verify that the food it is importing is safe.

- Sofía Baliño

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