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NZ Expert Eyes Global Threshold For Melamine In Food

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media
NZ Expert Eyes Global Threshold For Melamine In Food

Wellington, March 22 NZPA - New Zealand food safety officials are helping set an international standard for a tolerable level of melamine contamination.

In 2008 hundreds of thousands of children were made ill in China by deliberate melamine contamination of milk from a Fonterra joint venture. The chemical helped boost perceived protein levels and hide the fact the milk had been watered down.

At the same time in New Zealand the Food Safety Authority (NZFSA) opted for several thresholds: a 1 part per million (1ppm) limit on melamine in infant formula, a 2.5ppm limit on melamine in foods on shop shelves, and a 5ppm limit on foods which might be used as ingredients.

The authority said that at low levels, melamine would do consumers no harm: "Foods containing up to 5ppm of melamine do not pose a risk to human health".

Now, NZFSA toxicologist John Reeve is working with a group of international experts to codify this approach by setting an internationally accepted limit for melamine in foods.

He will attend a "Codex Committee" meeting in Turkey next month in a bid to set a contamination threshold that will avoid low levels of melamine becoming "unnecessary barriers to trade". At the same time, governments will be able to take action against deliberate and unnecessary adulteration of products.

NZFSA said some countries had not set levels of acceptable contamination and simply prohibited imports of products where any presence of melamine is detected. This did not allow for small amounts of melamine contaminating products, either from processing equipment or for from tiny amounts in the environment.

"The committee's job will be to formalise a standard, removing the variations that exist from country to country," said Dr Reeve.

New Zealand has had its own melamine scares since levels up to 2563ppm were found in the Beibei infant formula produced by Fonterra's Sanlu joint venture in China, with lower amounts in milkpowder from 21 other Chinese companies.

Contamination of the bio-active milk protein lactoferrin made by Morrinsville-based cooperative Tatua -- and selling for about $500,000 a tonne -- was discovered during in-market testing in China during 2008.

Testing showed levels up to 4ppm of melamine, and lactoferrin made by Westland Milk, using the same ion-exchange process, at Hokitika also showed melamine contamination of about 1ppm.

Lactoferrin is normally less than 1 percent of the ingredients in infant formula, but the two companies suspended their exports of lactoferrin. After many trials by Tatua the source of the melamine was finally isolated to a type of disposable filter used right at the end of the processing, and the production process was re-engineered.

In February 2009, tests for Fonterra showed melamine contamination in imported raw ferric pyrophosphate compound used in making milkpowder. NZFSA waited until it had the results of the testing commissioned by Fonterra before alerting the public, when it said the levels were too low to cause health problems.

Dr Reeve said today testing methods are now so sophisticated, melamine can be detected at tiny levels where contamination was not deliberate.

"A zero limit for the compound would not be practical and could be used as a technical barrier to trade," he said in a statement.

The Codex committee -- backed by the United Nations -- was trying to strike a balance between the "natural" contamination, and protecting the health of consumers from people adulterating foods.


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