Food: December 2008 Archives


December 4, 2008

It's definitely starting to look like the melamine-contaminated infant Chinese infant formula incident was not an accident, but rather deliberate. Science has the story:
Researchers say the adulteration was nothing short of a wholesale re-engineering of milk. Weeks ago, investigators established that workers at Sanlu and at a number of milk-collection depots were diluting milk with water; they added melamine to dupe a test for determining crude protein content. "Adulteration used to be simple. What they did was very high-tech," says Chen. Researchers have since learned that the emulsifier used to suspend melamine--a compound that resists going into solution--also boosted apparent milk-fat content.

Sanlu baby formula contained a whopping 2563 mg/kg of melamine, adding 1% of apparent crude protein content to the formula, says Jerry Brunetti, managing director of Agri-Dynamics in Easton, Pennsylvania. Milk, he notes, is only 3.0% to 3.4% protein. Chen says a dean of a school of food science told him that it would take a university team 3 months to develop this kind of concoction.

Investigators have concluded that as-yet-unidentified individuals cooked up a protocol for a premix, a solution designed to fortify foods with vitamins or other nutrients. In this case, it was deadly. Several milk-collecting companies were using the same premix, Chen says: "So someone with technical skill had to be training them."

As I said earlier, it's pretty hard to reliably prevent intentional substitution, with any practical inspection regime. There's an arms race between the inspectors and the cheaters and since the cheaters apparent; indeed, the melamine looks like the first stage in that arms race, since it's intended to defeat a quality control check on the protein content. The cheaters presumably know what tests are being performed, and if you don't care about whether your product kills people, you probably have a lot of flexibity in what kind of countermeasures/masking agents, etc. you can use.