Chief executive Andrew McKenzie’s column
When the initial reports of melamine adulteration of milk came out of China, I doubt anyone realised just how big the issue would get.
At least four babies had died and tens of thousands of other infants fell sick with kidney problems, after consuming infant formula that had been laced with melamine in an alleged attempt to bulk up the original milk product and add what would show up in testing as extra protein.
Knowing that parents would be extremely concerned about their infants, we immediately tested the full range of infant formulas on the market to reassure them (and ourselves) that we did not have a similar problem here. We were relieved to discover that we didn’t.
We did, however, find melamine in a range of sweets imported from China, at levels considered to be unacceptable. We issued a Director General’s ‘privileged statement’ advising consumers not to eat the sweets, and received excellent cooperation from all the importers and distributors we could find in withdrawing the product.
Knowing that some incidental contamination of food with melamine seemed inevitable and harmless, NZFSA, along with food authorities worldwide, worked to establish what level of melamine would trigger investigations and what actions would need to be taken. Those parameters are now in place.
We worked closely with Australia, Canada and the United States along with others including the World Health Organization and the European Food Safety Authority. As a result, we and most of these agencies set an action limit of 2.5 parts per million in most foods, but at the limit of detection (1ppm) in infant formula. These are not safety limits, but are the levels at which further investigations and risk assessments will be made should products be found with melamine in excess of these.
Meanwhile, we expanded the range of foods tested in New Zealand, and discovered melamine present in extremely low levels in lactoferrin, a highly specialised product produced by several companies in the dairy industry. The dairy company producing the lactoferrin ceased exporting it as a precaution while working closely with NZFSA to determine the source of the low levels of melamine. There was no evidence of deliberate tampering but at the time of writing no definitive answers have been found. It seems to be due to either the production process or maybe leaching from plastic packaging (or both), and further investigation is necessary, but it’s worth repeating that the levels found were well below the investigation limits set by the world’s food safety authorities.
Melamine, being an industrial chemical, is not something we have routinely tested for in the past, and certainly not something we would expect to find in milk. We hadn’t been asking, how might people adulterate milk to make money out of it? It’s a reminder that we should be asking those sorts of questions more often.
It’s a bit like terrorism, where previously unthinkable events have forced security services to consider the ways in which terrorists might behave. As a result, at borders and other strategic points, security officers are now extra vigilant. With food products we must do the same – think about ways unscrupulous people might behave and the risks they might pose. The principle of not taking safety for granted is a lesson well learned.
Published in Food Technology, November 2008