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Regulatory Watch: Jury still out on safety of low levels of melamine

November 1, 2008
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FDA has finally addressed the issue of melamine in food and issued a ruling on how much is too much. Prompted by reports of melamine contamination in infant formula and dairy products manufactured in China, FDA said that for food products other than infant formula, extremely low levels of melamine, below 2.5 parts per million, are not a public health concern. The agency recommended a zero-tolerance level for baby formula, however, citing gaps in scientific knowledge about the toxic effects of melamine on infants.

“It’s important to remember that there are no Chinese dairy products that meet our country’s rigorous Grade A standards. If they are found in the United States, they have been imported illegally,” says Clay Detlefsen, vice president for regulatory affairs at the International Dairy Foods Association.

However, FDA’s allowance of small amounts of melamine in food has not pleased everyone in Congress.

“While other countries throughout the world, including the European Union, are acting to ban melamine-contaminated products from China, the FDA has chosen to establish an acceptable level for melamine in food in an attempt to convince consumers that it is not harmful,” says from Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Chairwoman of the Agriculture Food and Drug Administration subcommittee. “Not only is this is an insult to consumers, but it would appear that the FDA is condoning the intentional contamination of foods.”

By not insisting on a zero-tolerance policy with melamine, DeLauro says the FDA is failing to protect consumers, and is undercutting state officials in their efforts to keep melamine-tainted products out of stores.

Meanwhile, Senators Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Russ Feingold (D-WI) have introduced legislation calling for mandatory country of origin labeling (COOL) for dairy products. The US Department of Agriculture’s new COOL law applies to meats, produce and nuts, but doesn’t include dairy products.

“Truth in labeling is critical, and the recent news of contaminated Chinese dairy products and the radically different safety and enforcement standards in China are clear examples why,” says Feingold.

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