Knock on Effects of Melamine Milk Crisis

CHINA - According to a new report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the Chinese milk contamination crisis has had such an impact on Chinese food safety concerns that the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of dairy farmers are now at risk.
calendar icon 29 September 2008
clock icon 3 minute read

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) are urging affected countries to ensure safe feeding of millions of infants following the ongoing melamine milk crisis in China. The two agencies also called on countries to be alert to the possible spread of melamine-contaminated dairy products.

Safe feeding

Inspection of milk production at a dairy plant.
Photo: FAO

"While breastfeeding is the ideal way of providing infants with the nutrients they need for healthy growth and development, it is also critical to ensure that there is an adequate supply of safe powdered infant formula to meet the needs of infants who are not breastfed," said Jørgen Schlundt, Director of the WHO Food Safety Department.

Replacing powdered infant formula with other products such as condensed milk, honey mixed with milk, or fresh milk is inappropriate as such products would put at risk the safety and nutritional status of this vulnerable population group, the two agencies advised.

"Restoring consumer confidence is critical. Melamine-contaminated products should be removed from the food chain in order to prevent further exposure. The safe supply of dairy products needs to be restored immediately,” said Ezzeddine Boutrif, Director of FAO's Nutrition and Consumer Protection Division.

WHO recommends that all infants should be fed exclusively with breast milk for the first six months of life. No other liquid or food, not even water, is needed during this period. Thereafter, infants should receive adequate and safe complementary foods while breastfeeding continues up to two years of age and beyond.

Increased vigilance

Countries should closely monitor their markets, following reports of findings of imported melamine-contaminated products in several countries over the last two weeks.

The two agencies highlighted that melamine-contaminated products could reach markets in other countries through both formal and informal trade. Getting information about the origin of a product, up to date recall information or, in some cases, testing for melamine contamination might be considered. If found contaminated, appropriate actions such as product recall and safe disposal should be taken, based on an assessment of the risk to human health.

Food safety is not the sole responsibility of public authorities. The food industry is also responsible for ensuring a safe supply of food to the consumer.

“It is critical that the industry strongly invests in food safety and adopts a food safety culture covering the food chain from raw materials through to the final product,” Boutrif said. Incidents such as this not only impact food safety and human health but also put the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of dairy farmers at risk. "There is a need for countries to do major investment in strengthening their food control and food-borne disease surveillance systems as it could minimise the potential occurrence of food safety incidents like this one," Schlundt said.

The melamine-contaminated dairy products event first came to the attention of the international organizations on 11 September. Both WHO and FAO have used the International Food Safety Authorities Network (INFOSAN) to inform and update national food safety authorities on this food safety crisis, one of the largest in recent years.

Over 54 000 children have sought medical treatment in China related to the consumption of melamine-contaminated infant formula. Almost 12 900 are currently hospitalized.

Melamine is commonly used in food contact materials (e.g. containers, labels, etc.) and can also be used in agriculture production such as fertilizer. Whether this has a potential for carry over into food at low concentrations (usually in the range of microgram per kilogram) and could further impact human health may need further evaluation. Melamine alone is of low toxicity, however animal studies have suggested that kidney problems occur when melamine is present in combination with cyanuric acid, a potential impurity of melamine. The level of melamine found in the contaminated infant formula has been as high as 2 560 miligram per kilogram ready-to-eat product, while the level of cyanuric acid is unknown.

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