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Despite Evidence to the Contrary, China Claims Melamine-tainted Eggs Rare

Nov 3, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

China’s Agriculture Minister Sun Zhengcai is claiming that the recent scandal with melamine-tainted eggs from China represents an isolated case.  Despite the claims, China has been at the center of a massive melamine-tainting scandal that has prompted international recalls and resulted in the death of four babies and tens of thousands of hospitalizations.  Melamine-tainted milk powder is to blame for the illnesses and deaths; it is believed the eggs became contaminated due to tainted feed.

Melamine, an industrial chemical originally designed to make plastics, fertilizer, and fire retardants, has gained notoriety in recent years for its ability to cheat nutrition tests because it possesses high nitrogen contents.  Because of this, melamine can create the appearance in food of being high in protein and has been used in recent years to falsify protein levels in foods.  In the recent milk scandal, melamine was added to watered-down baby formula to create the impression of high protein levels in diluted milk products.

Since the scandal began, melamine has been discovered in a wider variety of foods containing dairy products such as yogurt, dairy drinks, milk teas and coffees, cookies, biscuits, cheese, candy, and ice cream.  And, despite the Agriculture Minister’s assertions to the contrary, at least one industry expert has claimed fake feed is an established trade in parts of China.  The Agriculture Ministry itself said recent checks on 22,700 batches of animal feed found melamine in nearly three percent of the feed.  This is no small issue given that the Chinese population consumes billions of animals annually; therefore, if two percent of feed is tainted nationwide, a significant amount of food could be contaminated.  "The tainted eggs were found in some batches of egg products made by certain manufacturers," Sun told the agency during a tour of egg producers in a province neighboring Beijing, adding that there were still illegal outfits "adding hazardous chemicals and drugs into their products," he said.

The ongoing scandal has wreaked significant damage to the dairy industry in China, which is now adding melamine to its list of controlled ingredients.

As the milk scandal slowed down, Hong Kong reported that it had found melamine in eggs and is expanding their testing of food to include meat products imported from China.  The Associated Press also recently noted that the banned cancer-causing industrial dye Sudan Red was used to color egg yolks in an earlier egg-related food safety scare in Hong Kong and China.

Melamine can cause kidney problems—including kidney stones and kidney failure—when ingested.  At its height, the scandal caused the illnesses of some 54,000 children in China.  Some dairy suppliers were arrested and the Chinese government dismissed some local and national officials for negligence.  As part of the milk tainting investigation, police in China detained 22 people suspected of involvement in introducing melamine into the supply chain following raids on dozens of dairy farms and milk purchasing stations in which nearly 500 pounds of melamine were seized.  Police there reported that 19 of the detainees were managers at dairy pastures, breeding farms, and milk purchasing stations.  "According to the police investigation, melamine was produced in underground plants and then sold to breeding farms and purchasing stations," the newspaper said.


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