Friday, February 27, 2009

Melamine to fool the safety tests?

In October, the Chinese State Council had announced heightened regulations in its dairy industry in response to reports of 54,000 cases of kidney stones in children and 4 deaths attributed to milk tainted with melamine. Now new regulations have been set on every step in the dairy industry, from the cattle to the carton. The question is, what exactly what regulations have been made, and will they effectively reduce the occurance of tainted food products?
The melamine was added to "watered down milk" to fool quality control tests and make the milk seem nutritious. The Chinese Health Ministry issued new guidelines in October 2008 regarding acceptable melamine levels. The question that comes to mind is, why are any levels of melamine allowed at all? How many synthetic products can be added to a food product until it is no longer considered food?
When we buy food products, we assume that what is claimed to be edible material is actually edible and not toxic. Is this an unreasonable assumption? I would argue that its not. It should be a right to purchase food without the question of its safety and content of actual edible material. Governmental regulations should be enacted to foster this sort of trust between the consumer and the retailer claiming his goods as food.
I can see the point of adding non-edible substances to food products to enrich their quality. If they are not toxic and seem to have no effect on the consumer's health, then why not? If the FDA were to eliminate all synthetic components from food products, we would have no more twinkies. Twinkies have been around since WWII, and in that time have not been known to cause any negative health effects beyond what is normal for desserts and other high fat items. Adding synthetic components may decrease the cost of the final product, either by diluting the actual food content or by replacing an organic substance with a synthetic one. This is a common practice and I don't see any reason to ban this.
It is true that melamine may only be harmful above certain levels. However, the levels will change with the size of the person consuming it. The people affected by the melamine in the milk were all young children and infants. The melamine was put in more dairy products other than infant formula, so the entire population was exposed to such levels. The levels of toxicity depends on the relative volumes of the people consuming them. The statistics on the melamine cases support this logic. The Chinese government previously had no regulations regarding the amounts of melamine allowed in food products, which shows a definite need of improvement in their health and safety committees to regulate and test synthetic substances used in food products.
Should such committees test all synthetic substances used in food products? If those committees are responsible for ensuring the safety of the food they pass through their regulations, then of course. Synthetic substances are not all poisons, some don't cause any effects to health and some even benefit. There is a common idea that "natural is better", but does it make a difference if the substance was synthesized in a lab or in nature? It is still the same product either way. It is the nature of the substance itself, not its origins, that should be of concern. And synthetically made products shouldn't have the negative stigma that is currently associated with them. However, any synthetic product used in food products should be carefully tested and evaluated to ensure its safety.


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