Food safety authorities worldwide respond to melamine fears, NZFSA finds cause of NZ contamination

Posted by Daniel Palmer on 26th September 2008

In the wake of the Chinese milk scandal, which has led to the deaths of four babies and made of 54,000 infants ill, international food safety and health authorities are working together to determine the level of melamine in food that will present negligible risks to public health.

“Since the identification of the problems in China, food safety authorities all around the world have been working to identify public health threshold levels for melamine,” Dr Geoff Allen, NZFSA (New Zealand Food Safety Authority) Director – Compliance & Investigation, commented. “We know that the presence of this chemical is part and parcel of our life today, apparently leaching from plastics and contact materials during processing and packaging in trace quantities. We also know that at low levels it causes us no harm. Determining just how high levels have to be before there is a risk is something we are all struggling with.”

NZFSA report that they have been in close contact with authorities in Australia, Canada, Europe and the United States and elsewhere since the issue with melamine adulteration in China became known.

“Over the past week, our scientists have been exchanging information with their international colleagues. Last night, the European Food Safety Authority updated its opinion on the estimated tolerable daily intake (TDI) of melamine and left it unchanged at 0.5 mg/kg bodyweight (i.e., for every kg a person weighs they can safely consume 0.5 mg every day – for a 20 kg child this is 10 mg; for a 70 kg adult the safe amount is 35 mg),” Dr Allen advised.

Based on this figure, which is very close to but lower than that of the United States, NZFSA has adopted a conservative threshold of 5 ppm for most foods. This means that it has been considered that foods containing up to 5 ppm of melamine do not pose a risk to human health. However for starter infant formula, this level will be set to the current level of test detection of 1 ppm.

Countries worldwide are enhancing their border controls to ensure they can keep contaminated milk products out. “New Zealand’s border measures are similar to those in place in Australia and at least equal to those announced yesterday by the European Union,” Dr Allen said. “While we are also continuing our testing programme of risk foods containing dairy products from China currently sold on the New Zealand market, to date we have found no further reasons for concern. We will continue to post the results on our website and to take action as appropriate. The bulk of the testing has now been completed and provides a high level of assurance for the key foods tested.”

Food standards bodies in New Zealand and Australia called for a voluntary withdraw of White Rabbit Candies by wholesalers and importers from stores throughout the two countries earlier this week. The call was prompted following tests in New Zealand and Singapore establishing some of these popular Chinese candies were high in melamine.

A New Zealand-based company also advised the NZFSA earlier this week that they had found melamine in one of their products.

The company has not been identified, with the NZFSA today advising that it had completed its initial investigations and confirmed the NZ produced product was lactoferrin – a highly processed dairy product that is used as an ingredient in a range of products.

“Melamine can be found in the food cycle in minute traces from a range of sources. Explanations for its presence in this case include leaching from plastic involved in processing or packaging, or other unintended outcome of the manufacturing process. At these low levels, it does not present any health risk for consumers,” Dr Allen said. “Further, because it is much diluted in the final product, it is unlikely it would even be detectable. In fact some of the products that we have already tested and cleared contain lactoferrin.”