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 Deadly baby food

Babies the world over live on milk, rich in proteins, fats and other nutrients. But now it appears this food can be deadly to the babies who are fed it. In China over the last few weeks thousands of babies have become ill from the milk-based bottle formula they were fed, many of the babies critically ill.  As of this week, China’s Ministry of Health reports that the number of infants in China’s hospitals after ingesting tainted baby formula is 12,892, and that 39,965 more with less life-threatening symptoms are being treated at their homes.

As many American infants are raised on baby formula that is basically powdered milk, we need to be sure that whatever has happened in China will never happen here.  So what happened to sicken over 50,000 infants?  And how do we know that it won’t happen here?

The basic problem, it now appears, is not unlike the one that has led to the current melt-down on Wall Street: greed coupled with lax regulation.  The lack of “product safety” regulation in China is not in itself news -- remember last year’s headlines about mercury-tainted toys imported from China, or this year’s headlines about pet food contaminated with the industrial chemical melamine?

What is news is the total lack of intelligent follow-through by the Chinese government after these scandals.  There were lessons to be learned, especially about the melamine-tainted pet food.  Did anyone ask how the pet food came to be contaminated with melamine?  Melamine is a chemical used in the manufacture of plastics (formica tabletops are melamine-based) and fertilizer.  What in the world is it doing in dog food, and why in the world didn’t the Chinese regulators ask that question?

To answer it, you need only to look at the chemical formula of melamine: C3H6N6.  There are SIX nitrogen atoms in each melamine molecule!  Why is that important?  Because of a quality control shortcut often taken in the food industry.  When assessing the amount of protein in a food product, quality control managers do not actually measure the amount of protein present, as this requires an expensive test that detects the presence of particular amino acids (constituents of proteins).  Instead, they employ an inexpensive measure of the amount of nitrogen present in the food product, reasoning that in organisms almost all the nitrogen atoms present are in the amino acids that make up proteins (there is some in DNA, but much less).  Food products with higher nitrogen levels are judged to have higher protein levels.

You can see where this is going.  Chinese manufacturers of per food had added melamine to their product to make it seem that the pet food had more protein than in fact it did.  Now this isn’t rocket science.  Surely the Chinese government regulators investigating the scandal could figure it out.  Perhaps they did.  I don’t know.  But I do know that nothing was done to prevent this from happening again.  And this time it wasn’t a purchaser’s pet who was threatened, but the purchaser’s child.

Here’s how it happened this time, every step of the tragedy completely predictable and totally preventable: 

1.  The largest manufacturer of baby formula in China, a company called Shijiazhuang Sanlu Group, purchased the milk it used to make their baby formula from milk traders, firms who buy raw milk from small farmers and mix it together to resell.  It now appears that the traders, whose qualifications are not verified by any governmental agency and many of whom operate without any license, had been adding water to the milk to maximize the traders’ profits:  When one gallon becomes two gallons, profit more than doubles.

2.     Sanlu and other food manufacturers in China routinely check the protein level of milk they purchase in exactly the same informal way dog food manufacturers do -- by measuring the amount of nitrogen the milk contains.  As protein is the only significant source of biological nitrogen in milk, diluted milk would reveal lower than normal amounts of nitrogen and so be rejected. 

3.     But – why does this come as no surprise -- some milk traders selling to Sanlu have been playing exactly the same greed-inspired trick we saw pet food manufacturers using.  They have been selling Sanlu diluted milk, to which the traders had added the chemical melamine, allowing the diluted milk to fool the manufacturers’ test.

Tragically, infant kidneys cannot cleanse the body of toxic chemicals like melamine as well as adult kidneys do, so the melamine that the milk traders added through greed, and that China’s regulators ignored through irresponsibility, has caused kidney illness in over 50,000 infants, and counting.

In the United States commercial milk is checked more carefully.  Any chemical like melamine added to milk or any other food product would be detected by sophisticated tests and rejected out of hand.  In an election year I often hear that we would all be better served with less onerous government regulation of the marketplace, and that commerce should be left to work out its own problems.  It seems to me that Wall Street and China are two places where a little more regulation would have served innocent homeowners and innocent babies well.

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